Amazon is the first company I have worked for where mentoring is not just an expectation but where conversations with managers regarding other engineers may include the phrase who’s their mentor?. Mentoring is a rewarding part of the job, and I have benefited from mentoring from some amazing individuals both technical and non-technical. In recent years a sponsorship program has been started and I have been asked a few times the difference between these two rôles. I remember this paragraph from the article What’s the Difference between Sponsorship and Mentorship? from the ABA Banking Journal.

A mentor is a person who gives a protégé advice, answers questions, strategizes career moves and professional development. A sponsor is someone who promotes a protégé to other people to help advance the protégé’s career. A pithy way to remember the distinction is this: “Mentors talk to you. Sponsors talk about you to powerful people when you aren’t in the room.”

I stole this, added another person to this mix and made it even more pithy!

Managers talk at you, Mentors talk with you, Sponsors speak for you.

As with all good pithy sayings this one grossly over-simplifies and doesn’t admit that actually there is a spectrum of interactions, goals, skills, and interests wrapped up in these different rôles. Managers have specific responsibilities but are also generally rewarded for the growth of their employees and so some level of mentoring advice can be expected from your manager. On the other hand, it may be that your manager doesn’t have a background in your discipline, or sees a specific need that an external mentor can help with. Mentoring is an informal process and has to work for both mentor and mentee but in general the scope is negotiated between both.

Your manager’s primary responsibility however is to set goals for their team and to direct you effectively to meet those goals. This is the at part, directing is not usually a democratic process and while consultation is good in the setting of realistic goals, it’s their head on the block if you miss.

Your mentor can sit and talk with you about any topics you agree; your need may not be the strength of a chosen mentor and they may direct you elsewhere (which in turn expands your network). Beyond this though the discussion may be on areas of knowledge or specific skills you feel you need to improve, or other soft skills (or behaviors). It is rare for example for students to be taught negotiation and collaboration techniques at school but we all know how important it is to be able to compromise, disagree and commit, when it comes to teamwork. Mentor meetings tend to be informal, coffee chats for example which allows for discussions around the edge of your scope.

Your sponsor is another more formal relationship and one which more often is assigned to support you. A sponsor may talk with you about your career aspirations and the steps you see along the way. However, the real value of a sponsor is the talking they do about you in putting your name forward for projects and positions that they feel you would be suited for but may not have the exposure to. From Mentorship & Sponsorship: Why you need both published on LinkedIn.

The critical difference in a sponsorship relationship versus mentorship, is the dynamic of a position of influence, or authority. A person can only truly be a sponsor if they are able to create an opportunity for you that you otherwise would not be able to access on your own. Your sponsor not only has more experience than you in a certain area, but also has the ability to bring you “up” alongside them.

One behavior often needed of mentors, and managers, is to listen to the frustrations and insecurities of your mentee. Bordering on therapy some days your position as a trusted ear allows a mentee in particular to open up about the non-technical issues that they may feel hold them back. In some cases this may spark a conversation about coping behaviors, in others you may be in a position to point out the problem to others or fix it yourself, and in some it’s an opening to discuss whether they may need a change in team or rôle.

The combination of the guidance from these different points of view, and potentially different supporters, it looks very much like the description of an apprenticeship – “Apprenticeship is a system for training a new generation of practitioners of a trade or profession with on-the-job training and often some accompanying study (classroom work and reading)” – Wikipedia. Consider the following from Understanding The Apprentice Journey by Management Training Specialists (MTD).

Each apprenticeship standard is made up of knowledge, skills and behaviours.

The Knowledge – during the apprenticeship you will acquire the facts, information, theory and technical information of the subject required to enable you to be effective in their [sic] rôle.

The Skills –- the expertise, practical skills and talent needed in order to do a job, or task. The Job skills allow you to do a specific job.

Behaviours –- these are the way you act, approach activities and work with others and support you to be effective in your rôle and future career.

The missing piece in the description above is the sponsor rôle of advocating for and putting forward the apprentice for new opportunities. However, it is clear that all of these rôles are performing aspects of the set of support activities and you should take advantage of all that you have access to.