Sponsorship vs. Mentoring: Why Not Both?

In the world of talent strategy cultivation, there has long been a debate about which is needed more – mentoring or sponsorship?

Sponsorship vs. Mentoring

According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, President and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, the short answer is that mentors advise and sponsors act. But what does that mean?

As Hewlett explains, “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.”

Where mentors are akin to advisees, sponsors play a more actionable role in the success of the person they sponsor. When a professional takes on the role of a sponsor and connects their protégé to their own high-level networks, the protégé is also representing the sponsor.

This is why sponsorships often grow from mentorships; it’s critical that both parties involved feel secure in the relationship they are building and the competencies of one another. At times when mentoring isn’t enough, a sponsor can be a necessary player to champion a mentee into new opportunities. The role of championing someone, taking them under your wing, and getting them in front of decision makers, is a crucial one that should be addressed in any successful workplace.

Mentoring & Sponsorship Comparisons

In extolling the virtues of sponsorship, it’s easy to make a comparison to mentoring and move towards arguing that one is better than the other. However, there are benefits to both approaches.

In the end, pitting the two strategies against each other does the opposite of what mentorship and sponsorship programs are designed to do. Mentoring relationships are designed to help professionals become more successful in the workplace through guidance, support, and career tracking, rather than competition. Sponsorship takes those relationships up one level.

The Importance of Sponsorship & Mentoring for Women

As important as peer mentorship and sponsorship programs are in the workplace, they are even more important for female professionals. In male-dominated career fields, it can be especially difficult for women to insert themselves into the work culture or find the peer guidance they need to excel.

For example, women (and men too!) who had a sponsor at work were significantly more likely to ask for a raise or to request assignment on a high-visibility team. That’s where established mentoring and sponsorship programs come in.

Such programs take the stigma out of “asking for help.” When career guidance and peer mentoring are seen as an effective talent strategy, it allows women to reach out to other women in the workplace for career guidance and support.

Women who have mentors are then much more likely to mentor or sponsor others in the future. They experienced first-hand the benefits of such relationships, and feel inclined to give back to the system that helped them grow. This chain of events is very effective in cultivating professional talent for an employer in the long run.

How Can Organizations Encourage Sponsorship?

Companies such as American Express, AT&T, Deloitte, and others have created paths to sponsorship. As Hewlett wrote, “[These companies] recognize that while powerful advocacy needs to be earned, potential sponsors need to be better apprised of who is worthy of their investment.” Often, this starts with a mentoring program.

While we recommend implementing a formal end point to mentoring relationships, you can consider encouraging continuing relationships that can lead to sponsorships. Perhaps after the formal relationship is over, participants can start with a coffee date and go from there, agreeing to meet up once or twice a month to go over key objectives that they set together.

Remember, encouraging a workplace where employees are encouraged to find mentors and sponsors is key – it leads to knowledge transfer, employees who feel empowered to take ownership of new projects, and contributes to a healthy, thriving organization.

icon-angle icon-bars icon-times