The roles of coach, mentor, sponsor and board of directors are very different explains Ayanna Castro

I truly believe that in order for one to be successful, you need a combination of personal and professional coaches, mentors, sponsors and a stellar personal board of directors. To date, only one of my mentoring relationships was/is formal. My coaches, mentors and sponsors have been seasoned co-workers, supervisors who embraced that I’m a sponge and love to learn and executives with the power to put me in rooms that I otherwise would not have entered. It is a combination of those relationships that cultivated my ability to communicate and connect with just about anyone and take criticism constructively, no matter how it’s delivered. My board of directors has evolved over time with some steady members. While there might be some similarities, the roles of a coach, mentor, sponsor and a personal board of directors are quite different.


Newsweek reported that a life coach is part consultant, part motivational speaker, part therapist and part rent-a-friend. Coaches work with managers, entrepreneurs, and just plain folks, helping them define and achieve their goals — career, personal, or most often, both.  According to CFO Magazine, coaches have the ability to view things from afar — in what some call ‘helicopter vision’ — and to shed new light on difficult situations. They often act as a sounding board through tough decisions, help sharpen skills, and motivate. A life coach can help you find clarity when your objective seems vague.


Mentoring is a long-term relationship where the focus is on supporting the growth and development of the mentee. The mentor is a source of wisdom, teaching and support, but not someone who observes and advises on specific actions or behavioral changes in daily work. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines a mentor as “a trusted counselor or guide.” Others expand on that definition by suggesting that a mentor is “someone who is helping you with your career, specific work projects or general life advice out of the goodness of his or her heart”. (


A sponsor is someone in a position of power who uses his or her influence to advocate on your behalf. A sponsor could be your boss, your boss’s boss or anyone who’s in a position to influence others and who knows you well enough to put his or her reputation on the line for you. That’s in contrast to a mentor, who is typically someone who provides advice and helps you develop skills. Mentors help individuals get better, while sponsors help individuals get ahead.

According to Joann M. Eisenhart, senior vice president, Human Resources, Facilities and Philanthropy at Northwestern Mutual, there are three facts about sponsorship:

Sponsorship is earned

Only when a person knows your work, trusts you and can attest to your character will he or she likely be an advocate for you. Most won’t risk their own reputation on anything less.

Sponsorship doesn’t have to be formal

Because sponsorships are based on professional relationships that are cultivated over time, they often develop informally. Years ago, I was offered a position at a new company because a former colleague suggested the hiring manager get to know me. This colleague and I never said, “Let’s be sponsors for each other.”  Instead, the recommendation came as a natural extension of our strong professional relationship.

Sponsorships are two-way streets

If you’re fortunate enough to have a professional sponsor stick his or her neck out for you, please don’t disappoint. In return for their advocacy, they’ll expect you to live up to your potential. And they may ask you to work on aspects of your career development before they’re willing to go to bat for you. After all, their credibility is riding on your success.

Board of Directors

A board of directors can go by many names, “inner circle”, “advisory board” or the newest buzzword your “squad”. Are sure if you have a board of directors? Here are some questions to consider:

  • Are you surrounded with people who push you towards being extraordinary? Or are they okay with you settling for mediocrity?
  • Do they challenge you? If you aren’t sure if they are challenging you, think about how many times they have asked the simple question, “Why?” You know, I was thinking about getting my doctorate. Why? I want start a blog. Why? I really thinking about switching jobs. Why? They aren’t asking “why?” to discourage you. They are asking so that you can hear your own answer. Sometimes we have great ideas in our head but when we begin to talk about them in detail, we realize the idea isn’t great after all. They help you think through ideas before you make a decision.
  • Do they support you? Do they show up? Do they tell other people about how awesome you are? Are they your brand ambassadors? Do they talk about you to other people? Do they encourage you even when you are terrified because they have confidence in what you have to offer?
  • Do they expand on your ideas by saying, “Yes and did you think did you also think about…”?
  • Do they allow you to vent but keep it from becoming a pity party? Are they your “10-minute person”? A 10-minute person who you can call when you just need to let out some frustration and vent. For those 10 minutes, the job of the other person is to listen, not to comment, not to add fuel to the fire or offer solutions to your problems. At 9 minutes and 59 seconds, that person should stop you by saying, “Okay. Do you feel better getting that out? Great. Now what are you going to do about it?”
  • Do they have dreams and aspirations of their own? You may be thinking, why is that important? Well, when you are surrounded with people who are just as eager as you are to be extraordinary, it leaves no room for jealously and opens the possibility for collaboration.

Your board should be eclectic with various backgrounds, educational levels, professions, interests and passions. Embrace having both men and women with a broad spectrum of ages on your board so that you can benefit from different perspectives on a challenge you may face.

Take an inventory of who surrounds you

Some of the qualities a stellar personal board of directors include:

  • Consistently having your best interest at heart without having a hidden agenda.
  • Supporting you when you want to give up.
  • Introducing you to people to can propel you to the next level of your journey, whether it be professionally or personally.
  • They are not judgmental and give constructive feedback, not criticism.
  • They are genuine with their intent when they offer to help you. Learn how to accept their help and say “thank you”. While you might be awesome and amazing 99% of the time, it’s okay not be a superhero once in a while.
  • They are not bobbleheads. They are not “yes” women and men. There will be times they will disagree with you. They might remind you of a goal you set and have conveniently forgotten. When a member of your board calls you out for being on social media instead of studying, spending frivolously when you should be saving, or reminds you to pray instead of complaining. Do not get mad. Thank them for wanting the best for you.

Here’s the truth about having a personal board of directors. The table will not always be full. When a seat is vacant, it is your turn to sit on their board and support them. You must be open to having a mutually beneficial relationship and it’s not about keeping score. If you are keeping score, then it isn’t authentic and it will not last.


So, do you have a coach, a mentor, a sponsor and personal board of directors? If not, think about the people around who can step into those roles. Who do you go to for advice? Who to do go when you need clarity on how to get a task or a project done? Who do you know who is where you want to be and has the gravitas to introduce you to the right people?  Take the time to talk to them, find out if you have similarities and are compatible. Find out how you can assist them before asking them to help you. Make it a win-win situation for everyone.

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Ayanna Castro is a global speaker, life coach and author with expertise in empowering others realize their potential and overcome self-imposed obstacles in pursuit of their goals. As the Founder and Chief Maven of Work Your Package®, her mission is to ... (Read More)

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