If you’re a professional woman working in government, I will bet big money that you have been told at least once that you should find yourself a mentor. It’s inevitably the go-to advice that I hear passed around when someone is facing career challenges or indecision.
Honestly, it’s not bad advice. Here at GovLoop, we are strong advocates for mentorship (we even have a program for govies!) because that sort of partnership can really help you develop your network, skills and personal ideals.
But sometimes you don’t need a mentor. Sometimes you need a coach. Sometimes you need a champion. You might even need all three.
Confused yet? That’s not surprising. These three terms are often used interchangeably to talk about peer-to-peer, supportive relationships. Nevertheless, you should learn the difference between each role so you can fit your career (or personal) need with the appropriate support.
Here’s a breakdown of each role:
What they are: A coach is someone who is willing to dedicate time and effort to helping you improve. She may teach you a new technical skill, introduce you to a new field, or enhance your soft skills. Coaching is task-oriented and most coaching relationships only last as long as it takes to learn the task at-hand.
When you need them: If you’re learning a new skill, entering a new field or department, or just looking to try something out of your comfort zone, find a coach to help you master what you need to move forward.
What they are: A mentor provides more holistic support than a coach, though they may not teach you a tangible skill. The goal of mentorship is to provide the mentee with advice, exposure, and inspiration through sharing. Mentors connect mentees to their networks, relate lessons learned from their own experiences, and foster critical thinking about career paths. To gain these benefits, a mentor should generally be someone in your chosen or prospective career field. Mentorship is indefinite because the relationship between the mentor and mentee is, in itself, the goal.
When you need them: If you’re looking to expand your network or perspective about a given field, find a mentor who can offer advice and support from their own experiences.
What they are: A champion (sometimes called a sponsor) is an active and vocal supporter of your career. He should work within your organization, be a step or two above you in the career ladder, and have a keen understanding of you as a professional. Most importantly, a champion is someone who is enthusiastic about promoting your interests and ambitions (especially when you can’t). For champions, your success is their goal.
When you need them: Particularly if you’re facing institutional or cultural barriers of advancement, you need a champion to help you overcome obstacles and fight for your promotion.
Now that you know the difference between the three roles, you might be thinking, “This all sounds great but ain’t nobody got time for three coffee dates every week.” Fair enough.
Thankfully, you don’t need three people to fulfill these three roles. A mentor may very well be able to coach you in the skills you seek, and she might also be a willing champion for you at work. In other instances, a coaching relationship may eventually evolve into a less task-oriented mentorship relationship.
These roles are fluid. What’s important to realize is how each role can help you in a professional situation, so that you know what to seek when you have need.
You can also use these roles to help better define and leverage existing relationships. For instance, if a department manager is constantly placing you on projects where you work side-by-side yet doesn’t show interest in deep conversations about your career, you want to foster the coaching and championing aspects of that relationship while possibly seeking a separate mentor.
Remember: no matter what you need in your career, it’s okay to ask for a little help. Just be sure you know what kind of help you’re asking for!