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Do You Need a Sponsor or a Mentor?

Do you need a sponsor or a mentor to achieve career success?

The short answer is… you need both.

From my own experience in the private sector, one rarely achieved high-level, global leadership and executive positions without a sponsor. Mentors were primarily viewed as helpful to achieve or exceed your performance objectives.

In the federal space, many professionals don’t know what the difference is, nor when one is more effective than the other. Let’s begin with some definitions.


A mentor is defined as “an experienced and trusted adviser” and “someone who advises or trains, especially a younger colleague.” 

Mentoring can occur at any point in an employee’s career. New employees can even advise and train seasoned professionals, like when navigating social media. Mentoring is often used in both hard and soft skill development:

  • Hard skills – e.g. administrative and technical skills
  • Soft skills – e.g. political savvy and confidence


A sponsor is defined as “a person who introduces and supports a proposal for legislation.” Translating that to a career discussion, it is someone who introduces or supports an individual for a greater opportunity.

Think of a sponsor as someone in a position of influence, who introduces you to higher level people or opportunities to give you visibility. Sponsorship is most useful when the employee has some experience under their belt and is viewed as “ready for higher level work and leadership.”

Now that we’ve defined what a mentor does and who a sponsor is, I’d imagine your next question is how to obtain one for your career success.

You can learn more about mentoring in the federal space on the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) site.

Here is how mentoring is described by OPM.

Mentoring in Government

Mentoring is a process that focuses specifically on providing guidance, direction and career advice. Mentoring programs can be either standalone or part of training and development within an organization. Organizations, including federal agencies, run standalone formal mentoring programs to enhance career and personal development.

You may check with your agency to see if there is an established mentoring program available for you.

But wait; what if there isn’t one?

You can create your own mentoring opportunity!

Ask a subject matter expert in your area if they’d be willing to mentor you to improve your skills. You have no idea how flattering that is for some people!

Don’t let the lack of a formalized program keep you from the development you desire. Get creative and seek out a mentor!

Sponsoring in Government

Obtaining a sponsor requires a little more of your time and effort. Sponsors are not always easily identifiable. To find one, you want to observe, inquire and prepare.

  • Observe – Watch for the leaders who spend time talking with employees and really get to know their career aspirations. They are likely gathering data to be an advocate or sponsor.
  • Inquire – Ask your manager, your peers and your mentor who they view as “advocates” for employees to grow their careers. They may know of a leader who is passionate about career development, and that person is probably an “undercover” sponsor!
  • Prepare – If you’re ever within range of a sponsor, you’ll want to be prepared with what you’ve done and what you’re interested in doing to support the organization. You’ll want to approach this with genuine curiosity about how to grow you career, not how to get them to sponsor you.

Finally, you want to listen intently when receiving advice provided by both your mentor and sponsors. The mere fact that they want to share “insider info” with you is a gift, not often shared with everyone. Therefore, take it all in and use it to create greater success in your career.

Christine “Chris” Makell has worked for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for over four years, having held positions of increasing challenges and responsibility in that short time. She is currently a Program Analyst in the Knowledge Management & Transfer office. She joined federal service after a 28-year career in the private sector and six years as the owner of Chris Makell Consulting/Coaching working with individuals and sales teams to achieve greater success.

This post originally appeared on June 1, 2021.

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