By Judith Sparkes

When I reflect on my career so far, the importance of mentors and sponsors really stands out. Mentors and sponsors are not the same thing. Mentors talk with you; sponsors talk about you. You choose your mentors; sponsors choose you. In my view, both are really critical as you navigate your career.

Judith Sparkes
Judith Sparkes has been an influential communicator in Calgary for over 25 years.

I have been fortunate to have a few key mentors throughout my career – none of which were organized through a formal program, but rather evolved naturally. These mentors provided great ideas and resources; they became sounding boards as I evaluated options and next steps. They have been generous learning partners.

Sponsors – particularly in a corporate context – are vital to career advancement. And I admit I was slow to figure this out. For years, I held on to the belief that great work alone would reap rewards. Then I came to the (sad) realization that the working world isn’t always a meritocracy. And that’s why sponsorship is so critical if you aspire to more challenging, senior roles in your organization.

The ideal sponsor is more senior in the organization, well respected and influential with their peers. They go to bat for you. They are your champions. They open doors for you – whether that’s a juicy stretch assignment or a stretch role. Because sponsors put their reputation on the line for your career advancement, you must earn sponsorship through strong performance and cultural alignment.

It’s also very helpful to have more than one sponsor. Multiple, well-respected senior leaders advocating for you adds up to a collective endorsement that is hard for decision makers to ignore. What’s more, because sponsors are farther along in their career, they’re likely to leave the organization long before you do, so nurturing a “sponsorship pipeline” is a smart move.

Our working lives are full of ups and downs – and can require us to dig deep. Having people in your corner makes all the difference!

Judith Sparkes has been in communications for over 25 years. She was recently promoted to vice president, communications at Suncor Energy where she has worked for over 15 years in a variety of business areas including business partner communications, talent acquisition, and leading internal and HR communications for the merger between Suncor and Petro-Canada. Read more about Judith’s history with IABC and about her career in this past issue of The Current.

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