Kathy Hopinkah Hannan, national managing partner of diversity and corporate responsibility at KPMG
Photograph by Andrew Collings
By Kathy Hannan
May 20, 2015

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: Why is it important to have a mentor? is written by Kathy Hopinkah Hannan, national managing partner of diversity and corporate responsibility at KPMG.

Mentorship is a hot topic, especially among young women looking to advance their careers. Without question, a mentor can truly help you move up the ranks at your organization. But what is the difference between a coach, mentor, and sponsor? Which one do you need the most? And perhaps most importantly, are you ever too old for a mentor?

Generally speaking, a mentor is someone who speaks with you. Mentors are critical to career advancement because they allow you the opportunity to share your insights and ideas in a “safe space.” Mentors provide guidance and it is up to you to take the advice and insights you’ve been given and do something with that information.

Unlike a mentor, a coach speaks to you. A coach in business operates much like one in sports, he or she will tell you what you need to do in order to advance. Having a coach is particularly important when you’re are starting out in an organization. They can help you navigate the political landscape and fast-track your career progression.

Finally, the role of a sponsor is to speak for you. A sponsor, usually a senior leader, actively seeks ways to use his or her influence to help advance your career, by recommending you for growth opportunities, introducing you to important contacts, and advocating on your behalf. The bottom line is that advancement in any organization requires you have all three.

But what if you are moving into a new role and your present mentor cannot provide the insight you need? Or you’ve stayed in your current role but have taken on new responsibilities? Do you stick with the same mentor? I’ve learned that you’re never too old for a new mentor, possibly even one younger than you.

True career progression requires not only the ability to adapt but also a zeal for taking on new projects and challenges. With each change, you should be open to guidance and insight from up, down, and across the organization. I sometimes refer to myself as a “closet millennial” because I connect with the millennial generation’s spirit and passion for diversity. My younger mentors challenge me to think more like an entrepreneur and push me to find innovative solutions to existing problems.

The real secret to success is to never stop learning. Obtaining knowledge is a continuous journey. The best leaders know they are never in a place where they wouldn’t benefit from the insights of a new mentor.

Read all answers to the MPW Insider question: Why is it important to have a mentor?

How men can step up and help women get ahead at work by Gloria Cordes Larson, president of Bentley University.

When it comes to mentors, the more the merrier by Sharon Price John, CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop.

Are you qualified to be a mentor? by Sarah Watson, chief strategy officer of BBH N.Y.

Is mentoring necessary for career advancement? by Teresa Briggs, vice chairman and west region managing partner at Deloitte.

Do all employees benefit from having a mentor? by Dawn Zier, president and CEO of Nutrisystem.

4 things your boss won’t tell you (but a mentor will) by Penny Herscher CEO of FirstRain.

What qualities make a good (and bad) mentor? by Karen Tegan Padir, president of application development at Progress Software.

Why mentoring is unlike any other professional relationshipby Jenni Luke, CEO of Step Up.

Why you don’t need a mentor to be successful by Beth Brooke-Marciniak, Global Vice Chair of Public Policy at Ernst & Young.

What qualities should you look for in a mentor? by Gay Gaddis, CEO and founder of T3.

4 things to consider before choosing a mentor by Camille Preston, founder of AIM Leadership.

The most important quality a mentor should have by Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO of Ruder Finn.

Why women are more likely to be mentors by Alyse Nelson, CEO and co-founder of Vital Voices Global Partnership.

3 reasons every employee needs a mentor by Sally Blount, Dean of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Why this AOL executive chooses her mentors — wisely by Allie Kline, CMO of AOL, Inc.

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