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Career Advice

Sponsors vs. Mentors: What's the Difference & Why It Matters

Posted by Eileen Hoenigman Meyer

Career Advice Expert

Last Updated April 19, 2019
|5 min read

Mentorships help professionals learn about their fields and roles from senior practitioners.  Mentors serve as advisors, helping mentees shape their ambitions and plans. Mentors are qualified to serve in this capacity because they have a general expertise relevant to the professional experience that they share with mentees. It isn’t necessary for mentors to work at the same company as those they mentor.

Economist, founder and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation Sylvia Ann Hewlett explains: “Mentors can build your self-esteem and provide a sounding board - but they’re not your ticket to the top.”

Sponsors, on the other hand, can be that ticket. Sponsors take a direct role in the advancement of their protégés.  Sponsors work at the same organizations as their protégés. They advocate for protégés, helping them earn raises and promotions and garner success in their shared environment. Sponsors put skin in game, using their connections to advance their protégés through their endorsement and guidance.  

Having a sponsor, a career champion, is a game-changing asset that is especially important for minority and female professionals.

A two-way relationship

A sponsorship serves both parties, just as a mentorship does. But, while mentorships tend to be more ideological and educational, sponsorship involves concrete action on both sides.

Holly Brittingham, Senior Vice President of Global Talent and Organizational Development with Foote, Cone & Belding, FCB Global explains: Sponsors actively seek out and facilitate career-expanding opportunities for their protégé, and, in turn, the protégé commits to stepping up and demonstrating value to the organization, even if this requires them to shift their way of thinking and their leadership behaviors, in order to be successful.

Sponsorship, then, is a symbiosis rooted in action that furthers both sides’ aspirations. Brittingham notes: “Sponsors open doors and provide access, while protégés support and drive a sponsor’s vision.”

Why women and minorities especially need sponsorship

In a recent Fortune Magazine post Grace Donnelly points out: “It’s well-documented that the C-suites and boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies are overwhelmingly white and male.” In fact, Stacy Jones, also writing for Fortune, explains that although only 3% of Fortune 500 companies shared full details about the diversity of their leadership and staff, among “high ranking officials, 80% are men and 72% of those men are white.”

These figures indicate that because they are earning these roles, white men are already getting the support they need to advance. Meanwhile their non-white, non-male peers are clearly not earning leadership positions at the same rates; therefore, sponsorship can be an important key to advancement for these professionals.   

Brittingham explains: “The barriers to advancement for women and minorities in organizations tend to be structural and rooted in unconscious bias. To put it simply, human beings are innately drawn to and trust people with whom they have things in common, and are thus more likely to extend themselves as advocates for those people. As you would imagine, this unintentionally creates a rather insular way of cultivating talent.”

Purposeful sponsorship can remedy this. Brittingham explains how: “Breaking this pattern requires more than offering words of encouragement and support to those who fall outside the conventional profile of a leader or emerging leader. It requires taking a stance towards meaningful action. At FCB, we refer to this as Intentional Inclusion, which is the philosophical core of our Culture & Inclusion initiative. We believe that meaningful and sustainable change in this area requires a willingness to not only acknowledge unconscious bias, but to take concrete steps to mitigate its effects when it harms the business. And this is everyone’s responsibility.”

While sponsorship enhances individual relationships, it also has implications that radiate throughout a professional culture, enhancing it in myriad ways. Brittingham asserts: “when a well-connected senior leader commits to advocating for someone from an underrepresented group – even when this requires more investment in building relationship capital required for success – this individual-level action translates, at an organizational level, to disrupting the patterns that prevent career advancement for women and minorities.”

Sponsorship can have a tremendous impact on the organization, especially when it comes to cultivating diversity, retaining talent and training leaders.

Initiating sponsorships

As with mentorship, certainly individuals can initiate their own symbiotic relationships. But because there’s more at stake in a sponsorship, it can prove helpful to have an institutional program in place to foster sponsorships.

Brittingham explains: “It’s been customary for sponsorships to be informal and to emerge organically, but a more intentional effort is needed when seeking to improve diversity at the senior levels of an organization. Formal sponsorship or advocacy programs should contain elements that support the roles and development of both the sponsor and the protégé. For example, these could include focused leadership programs for protégés, selection/positioning of sponsors as agents of change in the organization, and strategic touch points and guidance for interaction between the two.”

If your organization doesn’t have a sponsorship program in place, cultivating your own organic sponsoring relationship can stand to serve you well. Also, it’s likely that your colleagues in human resources are versed in the basics of sponsorship and they can provide input and support. Petition your HR colleagues to start discussing sponsorship with company leadership with an eye towards adopting a company-wide program. Sponsorship can have concrete benefits for individuals and for the organizational culture.    


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