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Coaches, Mentors, and Sponsors: How do you seek them at work

Coaches, Mentors, and Sponsors: How do you seek them at work

Coaches, Mentors, and Sponsors: How do you seek them at work


The terms coach, mentor, and sponsor are often used interchangeably. But in truth, the three roles have very distinct functions, and it’s crucial for you to understand which one you need. Or at the very least, which one do you require first, and to what end? 

That’s usually the easy part – the real challenge lies in identifying these key individuals and getting them to provide you with the guidance that you need. Nevertheless, if you play your cards right, you can find just the right coach, mentor, and/or sponsor to help you reach your personal and professional goals faster. 

Coach, mentor, sponsor – What’s the difference, and why are they important? 

Let’s look at each of these roles individually to discover how they differ from one another.


According to Varsha Kanwar, Chief of Staff at CX Engineering and Product Incubation, Cisco, “A coach is someone who talks to you and challenges you to be the best version of yourself. He or she is pragmatic, supportive, and a cheerleader. This person enables your personal development and helps align your personal journey with your own aspirations.”

According to Upcoach, a platform for professional coaches, the most common benefit received from business coaching is increased self-confidence. In fact, 80% of people who received business coaching typically report an increase in self-confidence. Other benefits include improved relationships, communication skills, and interpersonal skills, all of which contribute to better work performance. 


Kanwar describes a mentor as, “Someone who talks with you. They’re an advisor with whom you can share your good, bad and ugly [traits], and who can help you with overall skill development.” 

Working with a mentor can accelerate professional growth. According to a Gartner research, 25% of employees who enrolled in a mentoring program had a salary-grade change, compared to only 5% of workers who did not participate. Gartner’s findings are supported by a Sun Microsystems 5-year progress report, quoted in Forbes, that said, “Mentees are promoted 5 times more often than those without mentors and mentors themselves are 6 times more likely to be promoted.


“A sponsor speaks about and advocates for you in the closed rooms where decisions are being made. They put forth their relationship currency to have your back and amplify you, and get you opportunities for career development,” Kanwar explains. 

Everyone could use a sponsor. The Centre for Work-Life Policy has found that sponsors deliver a statistical career benefit of 22% to 30%, depending on what’s being requested (assignment or pay raise) and who’s asking (men or women). The same study found that people are also more likely to confront their superiors about pay raises and ask for stretch assignments when they are working with a sponsor. 

Challenges of finding coaches, mentors, and sponsors at work 

With all the positive effects that coaches, mentors, and sponsors can drive, why don’t more people have them? Well, for most, it’s because roping in someone to get involved with your life and development is easier said than done. 

There are several contributing factors such as: 

  • Time availability / lack of availability: Individuals in senior positions are usually the best equipped for these roles and therefore the sought-after. Unfortunately, these people also have many demands on their time which leaves little to no room for non-core functions.

  • Distance: Especially in the context of today’s remote and hybrid organizations, it might be challenging for people to identify and develop relationships with potential coaches, mentors, and sponsors.

Even in traditional onsite organizational setups, people might not have sufficient opportunity to interact with and identify the right enablers outside their geographic location. Limited interaction automatically inhibits the ability to identify and approach potential coaches, sponsors, and mentors. 

  • Company / industry culture: People’s ability to ask for coaching, mentoring and sponsorship is hugely impacted by the organizational culture around these.  Do a lot of people ask for mentoring or coaching at a given organization? Is it natural for networking events within a sector to see people approaching those with more experience for mentoring, sponsorship, or coaching?

Is it part of your organizational culture to ask for (and volunteer) peer enablement before a presentation, or after a meeting, or with a tricky new project? Formal mentorship is one box to check, but the right culture can help set less formalized, quicker, sporadic professional improvements in motion.   

  • Lack of confidence: A lot of people who would need coaching, mentoring, and being sponsored typically lack the confidence to approach people who can guide them in these aspects. This is a classic catch-22 situation because here’s the thing: people who may not have the confidence to seek coaches, mentors, and sponsors are usually the ones who need them the most. 

All of these roadblocks are admittedly frustrating, and some of them are your control. But there are ways to work around them. Let’s look at how you can navigate obstacles around finding the right enabler for your professional growth. 

Ways to find coaches, mentors, and sponsors in the workplace 

  • Put yourself out there and don’t be afraid to network

This might be easier said than done, but approaching people becomes easier with practice. Remember – the worst thing they can do is reject you, and even if they do, they might direct you to someone else who can help. 

The word networking has a bit of a bad reputation, especially among women. However, in Kanwar’s opinion, “Networking is more about farming relationships than hunting [for opportunities]. It’s about sowing the seeds of connection, generosity, and helping others. It’s about give, give, and get.” 

Here are some tips that can help you when it comes to networking effectively:

  • Attend virtual and in-person trade events

  • Follow interesting folks you come across on LinkedIn

  • Keep in touch when you move on from a company/ keep in touch with people who inspire you when they move on

  • Remember that a mentor doesn’t always have to be a senior leader

We discussed how time unavailability can become an obstacle to finding mentors in senior positions. But do you really need someone very high up for your specific requirements? The answer is no. “There’s a false understanding that in order to be a mentor, someone has to have a title, but your peers could be your mentors,” Kanwar explains. 

She suggests that you could even approach someone who gave a talk or whose views or topic you found interesting in a webinar.  Similarly, why not hang back after a meeting and get nuggets from a peer who had interesting insights or made a winning presentation? 

  • Prioritize employers who have a coaching or mentorship programme
    If getting coaching and mentoring is important to you, look for companies that are recognized as being ripe for these. Inquire during interviews or when you find out about the job from your network. 

Bottomline: Being a part of an organization with such programs makes the hunt for mentors, coaches, and sponsors less of a struggle as there’s a pre-existing path for you to follow.

  • Make it a two-way street

Sure, you can argue that people who have made it should make time to give back.  But think of it this way: what’s the incentive for them if it’s just a drain on their time and energy?

So think of ways to make your relationship reciprocal. Perhaps you can make a winning introduction? Help them fill a vacancy? Or share insights about an interesting new tool you tried so that they save the time of figuring it out themselves. Maybe you know they’re speaking about ABC at XYZ event, and you stumbled on an interesting statistic or anecdote they can use… send it across! 

Only 37% of professionals have a mentor. So you can safely assume that you’re not the only one struggling to find professional guidance that isn’t coming from their immediate superiors in the workplace. 

But don’t lose hope because, with some amount of dedication and persistence, you’re sure to find the right coach, or mentor, or sponsor for you. “People are willing to help. They are willing to share their knowledge. It’s just that very often, we fail to ask,” Kanwar says, urging people to have the courage to go up and ask for the advice or help they need. 

Check out this video for more advice on how to approach a coach, mentor, or sponsor. Also visit our YouTube channel for tips on driving the career you’ve always wanted.