Sponsorship: Mentorship’s More Powerful “Cousin”

Some of you may have served as a mentor to a newer employee, offering advice and support based on your experiences in a similar field or industry.  Others may have had the benefit of being mentored by a more experienced colleague who was able to help you work through your issues by act as a sounding board and pointing you in the right direction.

A mentor by definition is a tutor, coach, counselor and or guide.  There have been many studies that show that mentorship is a very valuable tool to help all employees and especially historically underrepresented groups navigate organizational culture and be more successful. Mentoring relationships can be beneficial for both the mentor and the mentee. The mentor is providing a valuable service but also may learn from the mentee. Research shows that employees who are mentored are more productive, engaged and are more likely to stay with the company.

However a mentor’s role usually stops short of advocating or lobbying for an employee’s advancement. A sponsor, on the other hand, is someone in a “power” position who is a champion often unbeknown to the employee. A sponsor has usually had positive experiences with the individual where there has been a mutually beneficial outcome. The employee has demonstrated extraordinary performance that benefited the company and in particular the sponsor.  As a result, the sponsor now believes in and trusts the individual and is willing to speak up on his/her behalf.

The differences between sponsors and mentors are highlighted below.

A sponsorship relationship is often informal versus the more formal mentoring programs that many companies have developed. Sometimes, sponsors are not even aware that what they are doing is “sponsoring” and employees are unlikely aware that they are being sponsored.

The most recent research shows that while mentors are useful, sponsors are actually the key to advancing women, minorities and other historically underrepresented groups. However, it is less likely that these groups will have sponsors. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, CEO of Center for Talent Innovation, conducted a two-year study, which sampled 12,000 men and women in white-collar occupations across the United States and Britain. The study showed that sponsorship and not mentorship, made a measurable difference in career progress.

It is more complex for multicultural talent to secure a sponsor because it is still true that those most likely to be powerfully positioned are white men. White men may unconsciously not see employees from different ethnic and racial backgrounds as “sponsorable”.  It is easier to sponsor someone who looks more like you. Therefore their first inclination might be to sponsor other white men, especially acknowledging that they may not even consider their supportive behavior as “sponsorship”.   Now that we have a clearer delineation between mentoring and sponsoring, we encourage leaders to think about who they may be “unconsciously” sponsoring and make sure that you are not excluding deserving employees from historically underrepresented groups. We also encourage those who want to be sponsored to conduct a serious self-assessment to determine if you are ready for a sponsor. Such an assessment should include what you have accomplished over a period of time, who in leadership positions are aware of your accomplishments and how you can better position yourself to secure a sponsor.