Mentor or Sponsor: Which Do You Need to Accelerate Your Career?

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Home > Articles > Mentor or Sponsor: Which Do You Need to Accelerate Your Career?

 Mentor or Sponsor: Which Do You Need to Accelerate Your Career?

Smita Gupta | Today's Manager
December 1, 2018

Being mentored teaches you how to become a mentor; gaining influence puts you in a position to be a sponsor.

I have written about how valuable it is for women in technology to find a mentor or sponsor to help them move ahead in their careers. While it is clear that women and men need to develop the same skills to be successful in their professions, women’s experience of the career journey is very different from that of their male counterparts. These differences are often due to a combination of factors that includes both the women themselves and the environments in which they operate.

Research in 2017 1 shows that 48 per cent of women in technology roles believe a lack of mentors is the chief factor holding them back. A survey 2 conducted by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey found that women and men both view sponsorship by senior leaders as essential for success. However, women report fewer substantive interactions with senior leaders than their male counterparts do. And this gap widens as women and men advance in their careers.

But we aren’t necessarily equipped with the know-how to find ourselves the guidance and support we need. Drawing on my own experience, here’s a quick primer on what to look for and how to go about it.

Before going into the details, though, I would like to state my core belief about seeking this kind of career assistance, and that is: you need to know where you want to go before you can be helped on the path to your goal. Once you have this objective in mind, it will be much easier to work out how to obtain assistance in getting there.

It is also essential to know what kind of relationship you are looking for: there are differences between the roles of mentor and sponsor; your ultimate objective may require one or the other—or perhaps both.

In short, a mentor is someone who will form an ongoing relationship with you, a confidant and adviser who regularly observes your work and your progress. Mentors take the organisational view, applying its values and standards to give you insights into opportunities and pitfalls. On the other hand, a sponsor isn’t constantly engaged, but intervenes at key moments to promote your name within the organisation or outside it if that is your goal. A sponsor is a champion and influencer who will advocate for you when you need to be more visible. To sum up, a mentor talks with you; a sponsor talks about you.

Let’s look at who to focus on when considering a mentor. The obvious choice might seem to be women in senior positions, with experience and insight to share as mentors and influence to wield as sponsors. But don’t dismiss the option of choosing a male mentor. They can provide insights into male-dominated companies and are often in the powerful positions to be sponsors. Research 3 by Mercer reveals that 80 per cent of executive decisions are still made by men—so a sponsor who can provide access to key projects and positions is likely to be male. And if you share the same values and career aspirations, this will overcome any considerations of gender.

During my career, I have sought mentorship from chief executive officers (CEOs) and board members as I wanted to gain a holistic business view and be able to drive the business strategy and not just run a marketing function. Mr Girija Pande, Mr Simon Paris, and Mr Martin Häring have been and continue to be my mentors.

How: Network! Don’t wait. Seek out those who can help. Your company may have mentoring programmes. Some even conduct “speed dating” sessions to match mentors with mentees. While it is important to take full advantage of these, don’t be limited by their restraints. You may find your perfect mentor through the daily round of business, in a meeting, or at an event.

At Finastra, the Women@Finastra initiative focusses on sponsorship and mentorship at different levels within the organisation. The power of bringing a group of global women leaders together with our Executive team to identify key priorities that we feel are important and will bring benefit to both women and men in the organisation is a rewarding opportunity to attract, inspire, and advocate Women@Finastra. The following is glimpse into what Finastra has implemented and is on our roadmap to enhance the Women@Finastra experience:

  • Connecting high-potential female senior leaders with executives to gain exposure, opportunity, and advocacy through executive sponsorship,
  • Implementing a Global Women’s Network to help senior women learn, network, and grow from a regional perspective, focussing on connecting, collaborating, and development through mentorship by both women and men, and
  • Introducing a dedicated learning track for Women@Finastra aligned with our current learning programmes to inspire and support women in their journey to shape the next generation of leaders at Finastra.

An essential part of ‘how’ is the way you approach your mentoring and sponsoring and ensure that the relationship is fruitful. There is a key principle here: reciprocity. Don’t focus solely on what will benefit you; be sure to understand what is in it for your mentor or sponsor. Sponsorship/mentorship is a two-way street: sponsorees/mentees are equally invested in their sponsors/mentors and commit to helping their sponsors/mentors accomplish their own goals. Mr Robert F Smith, chairman and CEO, Vista Equity Partners says that mentoring is “a mutual arrangement—it is symbiotic in some respects. It has to be mutually beneficial: you have to lean in, and you have to earn the right to be a mentee.” Recounting his own experience, he remembers: “An important part of it was to enhance their knowledge: in my case, of technology—or what was moving in the market that they didn’t see.”

When: They say timing is everything and this applies doubly to your career. It is never too early to start building a network and seeking the key individuals to help you achieve your goals. A mentor or sponsor can help at any stage of your career but a mentor is especially important early on; this is a period of intense activity as you meet a large cast of individuals who can help you or hinder your progress. Some of these relationships can have lasting benefits. Locate the people who show interest in you, starting from those who interviewed you.

It may be that some of these relationships only matter at watershed moments: when you are seeking promotion, or looking to succeed in a project. That is when a relationship or friendship crystallises into that of a sponsor. Research shows that people with sponsors are 23 per cent more likely to move up in their career than those without sponsors, and 44 per cent of women with sponsors will ask their managers for a stretch assignment.

Where: You can seek these relationships within the organisation, but for a mentor, look outside too. You don’t need to go to the C-suite at your company: someone on a similar path to yours, or with a similar background within or outside your organisation could be ideal as well.

Finally, if you benefit from the attention of a sponsor or mentor, remember to pay it forward: being mentored teaches you how to become a mentor; gaining influence puts you in a position to be a sponsor. Having received the benefits of mentorship and sponsorship, always be prepared to do the same for others.

1 ISACA, 2017. The future tech workforce: breaking gender barriers, ISACA,

2 Krivkovich A, Robinson K, Starikova I, Valentino R, and Yee L, October 2017. Women in the workplace 2017, McKinsey&Company,

3 Mercer 2018, Gender equality in the workplace: whose issue is it really?,



Ms Smita Gupta is head of marketing covering the APAC region and leads ‘Inclusion & Women in Leadership’ at Finastra. With over 13 years of marketing and strategy expertise in the telecoms and technology sector, she champions technology, strategic relationships, and innovative marketing initiatives to boost business performance.


Copyright © 2018 Singapore Institute of Management

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Today's Manager Issue 4, 2018

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