Mentors, Coaches And Sponsors: Who’s Got Your Back?

As appealing as the Western notion of the “self-made man” (wait! What about us, women?) is to many here on this planet, these days we all know there is no such thing. No one succeeds alone and getting people on your team is as important for your career and life success as is eating, sleeping and hard work. Your success as you navigate your career, and your happiness as you navigate life, depends on these long-term relationships you build and even on these casual connections you build up with a broad and diverse network. Humans are social creatures we need people to accomplish things and to live a happy life. In life we have family, nature’s built-in mentors we get from day one. At work we also need people in our corner.

So, who’s got your back? Let’s check out some workplace allies you can call upon or whom you may already have.




A mentor is very experienced person who advises you, usually for free, on a broad range of topics.


A mentor has a strong career path, is well established in his or her career, and is probably someone who knows the industry or type of career you are pursuing very well. You build up a long term relationship with such a person. You meet each other on a regular basis or when you are facing some issues and need advice. The advice is not limited to a specific topic or area and is usually based on some situations or opportunities that arise in your life. A mentor should normally not ask to be paid for his or her advice.

The tricky thing is that the mentor, being a very senior person in his or her organization, has a very busy agenda. Getting someone to commit the time to see you regularly, may not be easy. Building up a personal relationship first, before popping the big “Will you be my mentor?” question is strongly advised.

Also, before asking anything from anyone – especially someone you do not know very well – give them value first. If you get to know the person better, which is so easy these days with social media, you will know what gesture the person would appreciate.

“A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself.”

Oprah Winfrey


A coach is someone who will support your personal professional development in a certain area of your choice.

You might need help improving your public speaking skills. You may want someone to work with you on some limiting beliefs you have which are hampering you from taking on bigger opportunities. Or maybe you want to be coached as you write your first book. Whatever the topic, there are coaches available both nationally and/or internationally to help you overcome the obstacles on your path and attain your big goals.

For coaches you pay, usually by the hour or else a monthly lump sum, and the cost can be high. Affordability is still an issue here.

Coaches usually don’t tell you exactly what to do. Instead, they ask you questions and help you become more self-aware, so you come up with your own solutions to your problems.

There are very diverse coaches training programs and some coaches are not yet certified. It is advisable to do a little research into the background of the coaches you are looking to work with to find out if they are accredited, for example by the International Coach Federation (ICF) or other bodies. If you want to follow a coaches’ training program (if you want to become a coach yourself), the exact same thing applies: it should be accredited.

The power of coaching is this – you are expected to give people the path to find answers, not the answers.”

Tom Mahalo


The third type of person who has your back in the workplace is your sponsor.

This is someone who mentions your name at an important meeting – for a promotion or a salary raise, or as a candidate for that board position. It is someone who knows your strengths and can vouch for you. It is someone who can open doors for you, who has a seat at the table and uses it to promote you. If you don’t know what a sponsor is, Carla Harris’ TED Talk will most definitely open your mind. In fact, as Carla Harris points out you can survive in the workplace without a mentor, but you can’t get very far without a sponsor.

Mentors and coaches are important and useful, but what distinguishes men from women in their careers may be that men tend to have more sponsors than women. In other words, women have mentors, men have sponsors. Getting from entry level to first-line management level can be achieved with hard work and mentors, while getting to the C-suite most definitely requires sponsors.

How do you get a sponsor? Again, through relationships – personal relationships. Sponsors need to know you and like you. You have played golf together; you have chatted at that networking event; they have seen some of your content or speeches that you have given. You need to be performing, you need to be visible, you need to be engaging socially, to find your sponsor. 

A mentor will talk with you, but a sponsor will talk about you.”

Heather Foust-Cummings 

If you thought networking is a waste of time, if you thought joining a network is a waste of money, think again. There is African proverb that says: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.

Inspired by this, the motto of the Career Women’s Network Kigali is “Going further, faster, together!” We have discovered that collaboration makes you go further and faster at the same time. If you want to go really far, though, you need one or more sponsors. How to find them? Through networking… in the right room!

Want to join a tribe of successful women who have your back? Contact the Career Women’s Network Kigali: and +250783719431

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