Why you need a mentor, coach, and sponsor

Each can fill a unique role to help you reach professional goals.

Climbing the metaphorical “career ladder” isn’t always easy. But there are people who can give you a boost along the way.

Mentors, coaches, and sponsors can propel you upward in your career, each in different ways. To find and benefit from these people, you must open yourself up to learning from those around you and seek out leaders in your field, according to Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, CPA, CGMA, an executive director at Oracle and former chairman of the AICPA.

“Everyone has a fair and equal opportunity to receive that kind of share experience that someone is willing to give you,” she said.

Ellison-Taylor went on to explain the unique roles a mentor, a coach, and a sponsor can play in your professional life.

Mentors share their experiences. Mentorship doesn’t have to be as difficult as it sounds. We all have valuable experiences that would be helpful to someone’s career journey. Conversations you have with such people could ideally lead to long-term professional relationships, with the ability to reach out when you encounter career stumbling blocks or want to seek advice.

“A mentor is just someone who is in a position of life experience that creates a shared value with you, because they’re willing to share their experience, their lessons, what they did, and maybe even why they did it,” Ellison-Taylor said.

For example, before she took the CPA Exam, Ellison-Taylor solicited stories and experiences from people around her who had already taken it to learn how to best prepare.

In the broadest sense, she said, mentorship is like “crowdsourcing life experiences that you may or may not have.”

Coaches give hands-on direction. Once you’ve gathered input and data from mentors around you, a coach helps you put it into action.

“They’re actually hands-on in helping you get through various stages of your journey,” Ellison-Taylor said.

Let’s say you’re applying for your first job. You would want to find a coach who could review your résumé and prep you for the interview process. Ideally, this might be someone in the same line of work you’re aiming for.

So while a mentor might share their experience getting a first job, a coach will give tactical guidance on questions that could be asked and even role play the interview process, Ellison-Taylor explained.

Sponsors advocate for you. A sponsor is someone who believes in your abilities and will put their own reputation on the line to promote you. When someone recommends you for a project or position, that is a sponsor.

They are lending you some of their “professional credibility,” Ellison-Taylor said.

“So that’s why it’s even harder to get a sponsor,” she said. “They are sharing their brand with you, and you have to take that very seriously because you are a reflection of them.”

Seeking a sponsor takes some time because you have to build trust with that person, she said.

Finding these key people to help you navigate your career path may take a little networking. There are several groups an aspiring CPA should look into, Ellison-Taylor said.

For those at the university level, there is Beta Alpha Psi, the international honor society for accounting. A range of professional associations have been created for historically underrepresented groups, such as the National Association of Black Accountants. Every state also has a professional society that can be helpful in finding other finance professionals in your area. And the AICPA offers a free student membership as well as opportunities to attend conferences and meet others in the profession.

Ellison-Taylor encourages young professionals to open themselves up to learning from the people around them — even if they are different from them.

“It's like being a plant that’s open to sunlight,” she said. “And that’s exactly how I think of the many rewarding connections I am fortunate to have.”

Taylor Knopf is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, an associate director on the Association’s Magazines & Newsletters team, at

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