LinkedIn | Sponsorship, not Mentorship: Why the Difference Matters, and How to Get What You Need

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Will you be my mentor?

This is one of my favorite lines from Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, a send-up of the children’s book, Will You be My Mother?

I have asked this question many times, never quite realizing how poorly I have articulated that need even to myself.

It's like proposing marriage, without having gone on a first date. Do I really want/need this person? For what?

Since mentors are also referred to as ‘coaches,’ and coaching is a big part of what they do, let’s think in terms of sports.

If you are a college football player, your coaches fill the mentoring role. They provide training and guidance from their trove of accumulated skill and experience. They focus on your development and preparation to win football games. Maybe they and you have done the job so well that you are a contender for a Heisman trophy, or some other major college football recognition.

At this point, you don't need someone to tell you how to play the game, you need votes.  Someone who is focused on promoting you. You need a sponsor.

Your sponsor may come in the form of a Booster Club. They may know very little about football, but they likely know a lot about media relations, social media, networking, marketing, etc., and have the enthusiasm to publicize you and showcase your abilities. The Booster Club becomes your sponsor.

You will likely also need an agent. He/she likely can’t play football any better than the Booster Club can. But they have the expertise to promote and connect you to the right people, and to turn the talents that you have developed with the help of your coaches into a lucrative contract. They don’t teach you (mentor) how to play football, or even how to be an agent; they act as an agent on your behalf (sponsor).

Sponsors don’t improve your skillset; they improve your access.

When we seek these types of relationships, it’s important to pinpoint what we are hoping they will help us accomplish. I've written about the mentoring equation, here. I have needed mentors, and I’m sure there will be times when I will again, but what I really need more of are sponsors.

If you possess a level of competence suitable to the opportunity you are seeking, but don’t have access, your missing variable is a sponsor, someone who already has a place at the table of the game you want to join. I have read books by people whose work and/or life I admire, and been mentored by what they have written and  said. You probably have too, but you can’t be sponsored by a book. You need a relationship with the author.

You can’t be sponsored by a book. You need a relationship with the author.

For those of you who are realizing that what you really need at this point in your career is access, but there's no booster club or agent in sight, here’s one way you might tackle the problem.

How to Get a Sponsor

First, identify three people that are situated to legitimately (i.e. someone that feels a little out of your grasp, but not too much) function as your sponsor.

Second, reach out to them, and say something like:

Dear Person that I Admire,

I have read your book (or listened to what you've written or examined your career).

I have learned these things from you (describe them).

For this reason, I would welcome the privilege of spending (45) minutes speaking to you.

For the first (10) minutes, I would like to tell you about me, and what I am trying to do.

Then I would like to be able to ask you questions and learn from you.

To show you that I value your time, I would like to pay you $500, either to you, or to your favorite charity, out of my professional development budget of

[x amount].  Further, if I can be of help to you in some way on your latest project, I would be thrilled.

If you are open to this meeting, I would welcome a place on your calendar in the next month.


Me, a person that is working really hard to get good things done in the world


Why I recommend this approach:

  1. It illustrates that you know the person’s work; you have invested some time and effort in them. No matter how well known people are, they want to know that you ‘see' them.
  2. Your willingness to pay means you acknowledge the years spent to acquire their expertise.
  3. Because you are paying, you will show up, prepared. They can feel confident that you will will not waste their time.
  4. This person you are reaching out to is very busy. Your understanding that there is a transaction, where there is value exchange for both parties, and your skin in the game catapults you to the top of the list of others seeking a similar audience.
  5.  It’s a rare person who’s willing to put their credibility on the line to open channels of access for a person they know nothing about.  As you show up to this meeting prepared to articulate your vision for yourself, and specifically what you are trying to get done in the world, the person you’ve just met with now has at least a glimpse of who you are.

All of us will find ourselves on new curves of learning where an accomplished mentor can be a real advantage.  Before you pursue another relationship with a prospective mentor, evaluate your situation to determine whether a sponsor is what you should be looking for instead because the greatest skill set in the world can go to waste if we are shut out of the opportunities we need to put our tools to work. Access can be harder to get than education; all of us need a sponsor who can open doors and usher us on to a new path.


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