People have long wondered — sponsorship vs mentorship, which is right for my organization or my career? But both have been used to give people a critical boost early in their careers. The two practices have a lot in common, but they do have different definitions and functions. While both can have a big impact in their own way, they can be even more effective when they are used together, especially for underrepresented groups.
What is Mentorship?
Mentoring is a learning relationship in which a senior person advises and nurtures a less experienced person toward long-term career development. Mentors act as sounding boards, help mentees build skills, and offer advice in making savvy decisions within a context of trust and confidentiality.
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,” says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, President and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation.
What is Sponsorship?
Sponsorship goes beyond advising to action. A sponsor takes steps to help the less experienced person in concrete ways such as making crucial introductions and actively promoting or defending them.
According to Rosalind Chow, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University, sponsorship is often defined as “spending one’s social capital or using one’s influence to advocate for a protégé.” While mentorship generally just involves the mentor and mentee, sponsorship is a “three-way relationship between sponsors, protégés, and an audience,” Chow says.
Sponsorship vs Mentorship
Any debate that pits sponsorship vs. mentorship misses the point; both are important in moving careers forward. Less experienced employees greatly benefit from the emotional support and seasoned perspective that they can get from a trusted mentor. And sponsorship can open up critical possibilities that the protégé might otherwise miss.
Some sponsorships can start out as mentoring relationships. This represents an opportunity for the two parties to get to know each other better, for trust to develop, and for a potential sponsor to assess the mentee’s potential. Sometimes a mentor can introduce their mentee to a potential sponsor within their organization. Other times, mentoring and sponsoring relationships are completely separate.
But creating a strong mentoring culture within an organization often provides a suitable foundation for both mentoring and sponsorship. The more people are aware of the principles of mentoring and sponsoring, the less likely they are to compare mentoring vs sponsorship and the more likely people are to step into those roles and responsibilities. This helps to engage, advance and develop the people of your organization more productively.
The Importance of Mentorship and Sponsorship for Underrepresented Employees
If still deciding in sponsorship vs mentorship, know that both are powerful tools for cultivating diversity and equity for underrepresented groups, including women, black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), as well as LGBTQIA employees. These groups are sorely underrepresented in senior leadership positions, and often, they don’t receive the mentoring or sponsorship opportunities that can be so valuable for positive engagement and rising in the ranks.
According to a Leanin.org survey, women are 24 percent less likely than men to get advice from senior leaders. Meanwhile, 62 percent of women of color feel that they are being held back by not having an influential mentor. Sponsorship and mentorship help women expand their networks, gain crucial skills and break through gender barriers.
As of the end of 2020, almost 90% of Fortune 500 CEOs were white males. With few BIPOC leaders at the top level, it can be a challenge for aspiring executives of color to visualize themselves in these positions. Engaging with a mentor or sponsor who offers encouragement and paints a picture of possibility can be invaluable in helping a mentee aim higher.
According to McKinsey research, LGBTQIA women are more than twice as likely as straight women to feel as though they cannot share their life outside of work with colleagues. On the other side, LGBTQIA women who are out at work tend to be happier with their careers and workplace than those who are closeted. Mentorships can offer a relationship of trust in which LGBTQIA employees can be honest about who they are, feel supported and engage more at work.
Mentoring and Sponsoring with Intention
Traditionally, mentor/sponsor relationships have been formed by chance or by self-selection in which sponsors often choose people who are like them, excluding many others who are equally worthy of sponsorship.
Intentional sponsorship or mentorship programs help ensure that deserving employees get the opportunity to learn from senior leaders and receive recognition and opportunities—no matter their background or identity.
How Can Organizations Encourage Sponsorship?
Establishing a mentorship program is critical for organizations that want to encourage equitable sponsorship, formal or informal. Mentorships can develop into sponsorship as the more experienced person helps identify specific opportunities and actively uses their influence to help the protégé take advantage.
Some organizations also create formal sponsorship programs alongside their mentoring programs. Companies such as American Express, AT&T, Deloitte, and others have also created formal paths to sponsorship.
Whether sponsorship programs are formal or informal, companies can set themselves up for success by creating intentional, fair, and effective ways of connecting senior employees with their less experienced counterparts. These connections — more than debating sponsorship vs mentorship — are key for helping employees reach their potential and creating a thriving organization.
This article was recently updated and revised from its original publication.