Why You Need a Mentor, Coach and Sponsor – And How to Get One

The number one reason people say they got ahead in their career was because someone – a mentor, friend, colleague or associate – helped them out. They had their back. Mentors, coaches and sponsors provide a lot of support and help with government knowledge sharing. At GovLoop’s Next Generation of GovLoop Training Summit, participants learned the tools needed to go out and not only find a mentor, coach and sponsor, but also to create a lasting partnership.

James Miceli, who works in Strategic Planning at the IRS and Elizabeth Fischer Laurie, Attorney Advisor at the Department of Health and Human Services in the Medicare Operations Division, shared the differences between a mentor, coach and sponsor. They also talked about how to find these important people and make the most of these relationships for your career.


What is a Mentor?
A mentor provides support, encouragement, guidance and ideas to help the mentee reach professional goals. These are generally defined in a written mentoring agreement.

“A mentor can provide a lot like new skills, new behaviors and attitudes about your jobs,” Miceli said. “This person is ideally one step ahead of you in your career so you can get an idea of the next step for you.”

Miceli’s official mentor relationship began the same time as his government career started. “I was able to better learn what a government career might entail.” At the time, Miceli’s mentor even helped him decide if graduate school was the right decision or not.

This is because a mentor may share their personal knowledge and experiences to help promote self-discovery for the mentee. It’s important to recognize, however that the relationship is professional although it may feel like a personal one at times.

A mentoring partnership is most successful when the mentee is driving it. For the first meeting, draft up a mentoring agreement which includes defining goals for your partnership before meeting. This way, both the mentor and mentee understand the ground rules from day one. Having a draft agreement also gives you more to discuss.

Going forward, success will be what you make it. It can be helpful to have a timetable where you can track incremental progress between meetings. Or it may look like meetings once a month to talk about a certain issue. 

How Do You Find a Mentor?
The challenge is finding a mentor who is the best fit for you. But there are many options:

  1. Seek spontaneous generation. You might just meet somebody at work or at an event. But this is less common than more formal programs.
  2. Join a formal program: Many agencies have formal mentorship programs where they match you with a mentor based on aligned career interests. You can also get matched with people outside of your agency through GovLoop’s mentors program.


What is a Coach?
A coach provides a very structured relationship with a set agenda to reinforce or change skills and behaviors.

“Coaches can help you with a particular aspect of your career or something you’d like to work on,” Laurie said. “Most of the time, these relationships are very structured and will be driven by you.”

Often, the coach creates objectives or goals for each meeting or conversation based on what you have asked them to help you with. Ideally, you would complete specific tasks to help you improve. For example, a coach can help you improve time management by assigning you specific tasks to improve your skills.

“It helps to think of coaching in terms of sports,” Laurie said. “It’s someone to encourage you to achieve specific goals.

Coaches are frequently hired and paid for their time and services. These partnerships can be short (one or two sessions) or can go longer if the person being coached needs help. That’s why it’s important to interview your coach before committing to a program.

“Make sure their style matches yours,” Laurie said. “For example, you don’t want a coach who’s more introverted if you’re an extrovert looking to move up in people management.”

How Do You Find a Coach?
It can be more challenging finding a coach, but the best way is to ask people in your network for referrals:

  1. Browse the web. LinkedIn and Yelp can be great spots to find coaches. There’s even a site called com. Such sites can help you search for a coach that’s catered to your needs.
  2. Ask HR. Check if your agency has a formal coaching program or can provide references. Often, HR professionals are in touch with coaching circles.


What is a Sponsor?
A sponsor is someone in an influential role in your organization, often a manager. This person makes an investment in a protégé and helps shepherd them in their career. A sponsor offers guidance, critical feedback and opens doors for the protégé.

“A sponsor is someone in your organization who’s pulling you up from your bootstraps with them,” Laurie said.

The relationship is purely transactional in nature. The sponsor puts her reputation and personal brand on the line. You are expected to provide her with a valuable resource to help her get work done. At the same time, she helps open doors for you in your career.

“Basically, they’re a gatekeeper,” Laurie said. “You want to be your best person in front of your sponsor, so it’s opposite from the mentor relationship. You may not even like the person, but you do need to respect them, trust them and earn their trust.”

How Do You Find a Sponsor?
“A sponsor relationship is probably the most difficult to secure because these relationships happen organically,” Laurie said. The best way is to try these tips:

  1. Join networks filled with influential people. Look within your agency for formal networks or even outside. Be strategic because you only have so much time in your day. You can also volunteer by joining a non-profit board or give time to an organization that aligns with your interests.
  2. Build trust with people above you at work. Try and get into the meetings for those who are higher up. It also helps to show off your skills to those higher up so sponsors are drawn to you.

By identifying the differences between a mentor, coach and sponsor you can find the people who are going to make or break your government career. Making the most of these relationships not only helps you professionally, but also make lasting relationships to help you personally grow.


This blog post is a recap of a session that took place at the recent Next Generation of Government Summit. Want to see more great insights that came out of NextGen? Head here.


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I am a federal coach and if anyone is interested in receiving coaching (or know of anyone in the federal government interested in receiving coaching) please contact me at my email ([email protected]) and I will be glad to provide them with the necessary documentation. The coaching can be performed in person or via conference call for which I will always provide a call-in/contact number.


I think that the Sponsorship is very critical. You can have all the right skill sets to move up and if you do not have the right person to vouch for you, the skills can be meaningless. It took a new SES to ask why I wasn’t a journeyman before I was promoted. Otherwise, I would have to wait until my project was completed to be considered.