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Role Model, Mentor, Coach, or Sponsor—Which Do You Need?

Are you including the right person to help you with your career?

Source: Letizia Bordoni/Unsplash
Are you choosing the right person to help your career?
Source: Letizia Bordoni/Unsplash

Role model, mentor, coach, and sponsor. What is the difference? Which do you need? Is it one person or four? Which will help you excel and blaze forward? Each is a distinctive role that can help push your career and self-confidence in different ways. Knowing the difference will help you round out your mentoring team, the group of people who serve as your personal advisory board.

Role Model

A role model is someone you look up to and respect. You may never meet the person, but there is something about them you wish to emulate. Perhaps it is how they have executive presence, public speaking skills, or the ability to connect with people. Consider who you watch on television, your favorite public speakers, people at work, in your family, community, or house of worship. What is it about them that you admire and respect?


A mentor is a long term relationship with someone, or ideally a team of people, who can help guide your career. You come up with a goal and plan, and a mentor enables you to revise and fine-tune your strategy, introduces you to people in their network, teaches you skills you should know, and provides emotional support when needed. They provide career and psycho-social support as you navigate the various triumphs and tribulations of your job. Mentors are generally volunteers.


A coach is someone who works with you for a finite period to help you develop and enhance specific skills. People who come to me for coaching often do so to work on their leadership skills, overcome imposter syndrome, develop executive presence, and/or learn how to become the expert in the room. The person being coached dictates the start and end of the professional relationship. A coach is generally paid for their professional services. Many organizations offer coaching for their C-suite employees with either in house or external coaches. Coaching is open to everyone. If your organization does not provide it, you may wish to find a coach privately. It is a worthy investment.


A sponsor is someone who talks about you when you are not in the room and shines a spotlight on your hard work and achievements. They will nominate you for awards, prestigious opportunities, and promotions. Traditionally, sponsors are in senior roles, but they don’t need to be. Peers can nominate each other for awards. Someone junior can even designate someone more senior for recognition. You could virtually sponsor someone by congratulating them online for their achievements, large and small. By sponsoring someone in person, on paper, or virtually, you are throwing your full weight behind them. By posting their accolades on social media, you are also notifying your extended network of this person’s achievements. By doing so, they know that person is worthy of your support.

Role models, mentors, coaches, and sponsors could be as few as one person who takes on all of these responsibilities or, more likely, up to four separate people. The important thing is that you have people with these four defined roles to help accelerate your career and become even more successful. Just because there is a pandemic does not mean you cannot develop your career and professional skill set.

More from Ruth Gotian Ed.D., M.S.
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