The Apochromatik Guide to Mentoring: Part I – Distinguishing between Mentors, Sponsors, Friends, and Coaches

—Amy M. Gardner

Mentoring is often touted as a solution to problems in the workplace, from retention and promotion of women and people of color to increasing camaraderie and overall job satisfaction.  While mentoring is not a panacea, it is a tool that can, through thoughtfully designed programs and invested participants, move the needle on all of those.  But, while Apochromatik’s services include working with employers to design mentoring programs and ensure they’re effective, not everyone has quite figured out that they need us.  (Side note: if your employer’s mentoring program needs our advice, or if you’re involved in a non-profit with a mentoring program that could benefit from a quick training for mentors and mentees, let us know.)  

As we launch this series on mentoring, this week we’ll address the difference between mentors, sponsors, friends, and coaches.  In future posts we’ll address tips to be a good mentor, tips to be a good mentee, the three types of mentors you need in your career, and more – all to help you find and foster the kind of mentoring relationships that can help you succeed. 

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Distinguishing between Mentors, Sponsors, Coaches, and Friends 


First off, what is a mentor? 

Differing expectations about what a mentor should do are often what lead to dissatisfaction in mentoring relationships.  If you’re a mentor, it’s important for you to help the mentee understand (maybe by giving her this blog post) what your role is.  And if you’re a mentee, you can help the relationship immeasurably by prompting a conversation about expectations and making clear you aren’t expecting the mentor to be your fairy godmother.  

Mentoring Definition 

I often think of a mentor as a guide who helps you so that you can reach the summit, in contrast to a pack mule who is doing the heavy lifting for you.  A more specific definition is that mentoring is a conscious, ongoing effort to assist in the development process by someone invested in the other’s success.  Let’s break that down a little bit.

The first element is conscious.  Whether formal or informal, mentoring does not just happen; mentoring is a conscious process and more than just saying “my door is always open.” 

Second, mentoring is ongoing.  Asking for or giving advice once, or attending a program kick-off does not mean that there is a mentoring relationship.  Those initial interactions might be the beginning of one, but they are not the end.

The third element is effort.  As much as mentoring can be rewarding and helpful for both parties, it does take effort on the part of both the mentor and the mentee.

That effort is focused on assisting the mentee. This is where many first-time mentees get frustrated and where mentors can sometimes overstep. The mentoring relationship is intended to assist the mentee, but the mentor is not supposed to do the work for the mentee.

In addition, assist means help, not order, direct, or the senior person saying, “Do this because it’s what I did.”  In fact, mentoring relationships can break down if the mentee feels that the senior person is just telling them what to do.

The mentoring relationship is focused on assisting in the development process.  This is another element that distinguishes mentoring from friendships, because the mentoring relationship is intended to help in the mentee’s development and growth in their career.  And, just as you don’t hatch at the age of 22 ready to be a fully developed professional, a good mentor recognizes that the mentee will have times of growth, times of difficulty, and rough patches along the way. In other words, good mentors recognize that development is an ongoing process.

The next element is by someone.  The definition of mentoring does not require someone perfect, someone in the same field, or someone who looks just like the mentee; anyone can be a mentor.

In particular, that someone needs to be invested in helping the mentee with the last element, which is the mentee’s success.

Now that we’ve defined mentoring, there are two main types that we’ll refer to throughout this series.  The first is formal, and the second is informal.  Basically, a formal mentoring relationship usually comes about because you attend a kick-off event and someone says, “Here’s your mentor” or there is some other way that the relationships are designated clearly.

Examples of formal mentoring programs that you may be familiar with or have the opportunity to get involved in would be mentoring programs offered through your alma mater, through your employer, or a mentoring program offered through your professional organization.  By contrast, an informal networking relationship is one where the mentor or mentee may seek each other out and the relationship grows more organically.


Next, let’s turn to sponsorship.  Sponsorship is a concept more widely acknowledged today, but was less common in the past.  In short, a sponsor is someone willing to leverage his or her reputation on your behalf.

Typically a sponsor is in a position of influence or power at the same organization as you are and willing to leverage their reputation on behalf of their protege.  For example, a sponsor might lobby for you to be given a high profile work assignment or to represent your employer at a significant conference or meeting.  A sponsor could also help you join a non-profit or community board as they are rotating off.

A key difference is that, unlike in a mentor relationship, a sponsor relationship relies more on trust and less on affinity.  In other words, a sponsor really needs to trust that you’re going to be able to deliver if she uses her credibility to support your career.

Another way to think about it is that a sponsor helps promote your strengths and “frontstage” version to others.  By contrast, a mentor is typically more involved in your career, helps you build on your strengths, and sees more of the backstage process during your development.

For example, a mentee may go to the mentor for advice and let his guard down in front of the mentor and ask questions, including how to recover from a setback.  The relationship is focused on the mentee’s career development and, although the benefits can and should flow both ways, the mentoring relationship is generally built around and focused on the mentee.  On the other hand, the sponsor is usually consulted about topics like how to leverage successes and does not see the backstage version that resulted in those successes.


Mentors and sponsors should not be confused with friends.  While both sponsors and mentors are generally more advanced than you are in your career, in a friendship both parties are equal regardless of their career status and spend time together outside work.  You’re also much more likely to share the full backstage version with a friend then you should be with a mentor and certainly with a sponsor.  In fact, friends from outside the office may never see the front-stage version you present at work.


Finally, a coach has no interest other than the client’s success and keeps conversations with the client confidential.  We certainly hope that a friend or mentor will keep conversations confidential, but a coach is actually obligated to do so, and will also see and know the entire backstage situation for a client as well as the front-stage version.

In a successful career, you will hopefully have the benefits of all four types of relationships.

With that groundwork out of the way, please post your mentoring questions below.  What role has mentoring played in your career?

That’s all for this week. If you can’t wait for the future posts in this series on mentoring, you can watch this free webinar on how to build and utilize meaningful mentoring relationships hosted by the Northwestern Alumni Association.  (No Northwestern affiliation is required to watch this recorded program.)