Sponsor vs. Mentor: The Example of American Ballet Theater Principal Ballerina Misty Copeland Sponsor vs. Mentor: The Example of American Ballet Theater Principal Ballerina Misty Copeland
Like many, I am inspired by the story of American Ballet Theater ballerina Misty Copeland. First, I am inspired by her recent achievement of... Sponsor vs. Mentor: The Example of American Ballet Theater Principal Ballerina Misty Copeland

Like many, I am inspired by the story of American Ballet Theater ballerina Misty Copeland. First, I am inspired by her recent achievement of being named the first African American principal dancer in the 75-year history of the renowned American Ballet Theater Company.

I also am inspired to know of her Copeland’s personal history of rising from poverty to being at the top of her art.  Knowing that she grew up in San Pedro, CA – just a few miles from my childhood home of Compton, CA – reminds us all that anything is possible, no matter where you come from.

I also was intrigued to learn that Copeland did not begin to learn ballet until she was 13 years old, and that over the years, she has been shunned by many ballet and dance critics for not fitting the traditional physical or cultural profile of a star ballerina. These are some of the same criticisms that the Williams sister tennis-champions have experienced.

The thing that intrigued me most about Copeland’s story was learning that one of the keys to her catapulting from just a talented ballet dancer to a now world-renown ballet star, was the moment in her life where she met Valentino Carlotti – the man who would become more than a mentor to her, but also one of her lead sponsors and benefactors.

The concept of having a sponsor versus a mentor is not new. We know that in the early days of the European arts world, it was considered a badge of honor for a new or growing artist to be supported or sponsored by a wealthy benefactor. We also are familiar with the use of the term “sponsor” in connection with such programs as the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step and similar programs.

In the context of the workplace and professional world, the concept of having a sponsor versus a mentor first was brought to the forefront in 2010 when Sylvia Hewlett published her book “Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor.”

In defining the difference between having a sponsor versus a mentor in a 2013 interview with Forbes magazine, Hewlett stated that in short – “Mentors advise and sponsors act.” She stated that “Mentors shine as you start to define your dream. They can see and put into words for you what you may not see about yourself or be able to articulate. They can help you determine your strengths: what you do exceptionally well and what sets you apart. A well-chosen mentor will also know the lay of the land in your firm and help you learn to navigate the corporate ladder.”

Hewlett went on to say that “if mentors help define the dream, sponsors are the dream-enablers. Sponsors deliver: They make you visible to leaders within the company — and to top people outside as well. They connect you to career opportunities and provide air cover when you encounter trouble. When it comes to opening doors, they don’t stop with one promotion: They’ll see you to the threshold of power.”

Copeland’s Story as a Powerful Example of Sponsorship
Although the concept of having a sponsor versus a mentor now has been around and debated for several years now, with Copeland’s story and meteoric rise, we see an example of this concept live and in living color.

What do we know about Copeland’s sponsor Carlotti? He is a partner at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., heading the securities division institutional client group. Like Copeland, Carlotti also is African-American. He has been quoted as stating that he understands the challenges Copeland has faced in trying to make it in the dance world, based on his own experiences in making it in the cutthroat world of Wall Street.

Carlotti first offered to assist Copeland after hearing her speak at a local Manhattan, NY Bookstore. Carlotti reached out to Copeland’s manager and offered to assist her, becoming both her adviser and benefactor.

Perhaps most important, knowing that Copeland was at a crossroads in her career, and that she was just one opportunity from going from good to great, Carlotti opened his rolodex and connected Copeland to others who could be helpful to her and who also would become major supporters of her, both financially, and in terms of attendance at her performances and other support for her career.

Carlotti went out of his way to make Copeland the talk of the town, inviting her to social galas and introducing her around the room.  Essentially, Carlotti became more than a mentor to Copeland – he became a sponsor by taking a personal and proactive interest in helping her to move from one stage of her career to another.

What Can We Learn from Copeland’s Story?
Commitment to Excellence and Top-Performance is Key-The first key to having, finding, or being identified by a great sponsor is to be at the top of your game – to show them that you are someone worth them investing their time, energy, resources and contacts.

Take Hold of Unexpected Opportunities-In Copeland’s story, we see that once Copeland learned that Carlotti wanted to mentor and sponsor her, recognizing the value of Carlotti’s background and experience, Copeland immediately took advantage of the opportunity to work Carlotti, and embraced all he had to offer.

Be Open-A sponsor may not be someone you currently know or have a relationship with.  Sometimes, we have to be willing to go expand beyond our normal networks to find individuals who may be in a position to help us. Carlotti was not from the dance world, but he saw in Copeland an opportunity to introduce her to a new world of opportunities and relationships.

Learn from Your Sponsor– The key to a successful sponsorship relationship, is our willingness to learn from and accept the advice and guidance of our sponsors.  In an article with Bloomberg Magazine, referring to Carlotti, Copeland was quoted as saying “Someone of his stature who wants to give back and help little me is incredible.”  Even with her amazing talent and accomplishments, Copeland recognizes that there still are things she can learn from others.

Be Thankful and Make Your Sponsor Proud–In most instances, sponsors, are not looking for anything more from the relationship with the person they are sponsoring is for the person to make good of the advice, resources and introductions the sponsor is making available to them, and to make good on the opportunity provided to them. Although Carlotti may have some business interests in Copeland’s success, it appears that his only real goal has is for her to use the support and guidance he has given her to make the most of this historical opportunity she has as one of the world’s top ballerinas.  The fact that Copeland is committed to her art form and being the best at what she does, seems reward enough for Carlotti.

Keep the Circle Going–Perhaps the greatest signal of a successful sponsor relationship, is when the person who is being sponsored, in turns sponsors and mentors someone else.  With Copeland, we see many examples of where she mentors and gives back to others, to younger generations in particular. I have no doubt that based on the example Carlotti and others have set for her that once Copeland is a position to personally sponsor or support an up and coming ballerina or artist, that she will do so.

Sponsor vs. Mentor – Which is Better?
The reality is we need both. To advance in our careers and goals in life, we need individuals who will mentor us by, as Oprah Winfrey says, helping us “to see the hope inside ourselves.” However, when we are in a place where we feel stuck in our careers, or are trying to determine how to move from one place in our careers to another, often times we need more than a mentor – we need a sponsor. Someone who will help carry us to the finish line by offering their time, talents, resources, relationships and network.

No matter where you are in your career, take inventory of the people in your life and as yourself these seven questions:

Who are the mentors in my life?
Who are my sponsors or potential sponsors?
Do I have mentors who can potentially become sponsors?
Am I honing my talents and skills in a way that will make someone else want to help me and take me under their wings?
What steps do I need to take to identify someone who might be willing to mentor or sponsor me?
If I currently have mentors and sponsors in my life, am I honoring the relationship and doing the things it takes to make the relationships mutually rewarding?
Who should I be mentoring and sponsoring in return?

Indeed, Copeland’s story has inspired us all and reminded us that anything is possible.  Her story also has shown us that having a great sponsor and mentor along the way, is an added benefit that often can help catapult us to the next level in
our careers.

It is rare that any of us go from rags to riches, or achieve high levels in our careers and professional lives without the help of someone else.  I believe Sir Isaac Newton said it best when he said “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” I also am reminded of the often famous Biblical quote – “To whom much is given, much is required.”

about the author
Often called the “Workplace Guru,” Reddock-Wright is a strategic human resources consultant and Managing Attorney of the Los Angeles based Reddock Law Group, a boutique employment and labor law firm focused on the mediation, arbitration, and investigation of workplace disputes. Follow her workplace blog at www.your-workmatters.com