Mentor or Sponsor?

Mentors, take note. You might not be doing your job.

A 2008 Catalyst survey of 4000 high-potential men and women who graduated from top MBA programs revealed that women were paid nearly $5000 less in their first post-MBA job, had lower-level positions, and reported significantly less career satisfaction. (For more findings, see the HBR article “Women in Management: Delusions of Progress”)

While more of the women than men had mentors, a 2010 follow-up survey showed that 15% more of the men had received promotions in the intervening two years. I’m a huge believer in mentoring as an essential element in career advancement and have been mentoring women as part of formal programs for the last decade. But this research makes me wonder whether mentoring really works.

The HBR article entitled “Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women” suggests that mentoring isn’t enough. Career advancement is more likely to come from active sponsorship than more passive mentoring.  Mentors offer ‘psychosocial’ support for personal and professional development, plus career help that includes advice and coaching.  Sponsors, on the other hand, openly campaign for career advancement, often putting their own reputation on the line.  People may enjoy mentoring more but they are more likely to get ahead through sponsorship.

On the surface, it’s not obvious that one person can be both a good mentor and a good sponsor. The best mentors are often observant, selfless and introspective; traits that are not always associated with top management. Maybe companies need to create both mentoring and sponsorship programs to address the differing needs. Otherwise, an employee expecting one kind of advice might end up with something else.

Mentor or sponsor? In retrospect, I’ve done some of each in my career although I now realize I’ve been much more heavily weighted to mentoring.

I’m interested in your opinion. Do you see a difference in the two roles? Which one are you?

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13 Responses to Mentor or Sponsor?

  1. Vinay October 11, 2010 at 9:05 am #

    I was thinking about it too after reading the article. My take is that mentoring precedes sponsorship and it may not have to be either/or. If the mentoree (thanks to the Urban dictionary) shows promise and potential, the mentor starts to feel a sense of ‘achievement’ and starts to sponsor them. Of course, the mentor-sponsor needs to have relevant power and influence to make the desired impact…

    So, perhaps, sponsors have the option to also be mentors but not the other way around necessarily!

    • Jonathan October 11, 2010 at 9:38 am #

      Mentoree? Never heard the term. I’m used to mentee.

      I like the idea of mentoring leading to sponsorship. Others?

  2. Liz Brenner October 12, 2010 at 12:36 pm #

    Jonathan, I really enjoyed this article. Recently, I heard a speaker (during Diversity Week) refer to the Sponsor role as an “Advocate”. Regardless of what you call it, it is ever important to foster these relationships.

    Great post!

    • Jonathan October 13, 2010 at 8:41 am #

      Thanks for the suggestion, Liz. I like the word “Advocate” better than the word “Sponsor”.

  3. Jeff Winter October 12, 2010 at 7:16 pm #

    I agree with Vinay. I have leveraged “mentors” at every company I have worked at, and after reading your post, I now think that many of these relationships transitioned to more “Sponsors” vs Mentors.


  4. Jen October 13, 2010 at 5:58 am #

    i agree sponsors are key- mentors at SAP seem to be plentiful but having a sponsor that helps your advance your career and serves as your advocate in your absence is key. How do we encourage our senior leadership to be sponsors for women struggling to get on equal footing?

  5. Madhur Aggarwal October 14, 2010 at 6:20 am #

    Jonathan, great post for it highlights that while seemingly same these are 2 different roles. Key points based on my experience:

    1. An individual chooses mentors but your sponsors pick you.
    2. Mentors coach mentees in a somewhat selfless manner (aka they have little expectation of something in return) whereas the relationship with sponsor is materialistically symbiotic (aka the sponsor is expecting to also benefit from protegees advancement)
    3. While the same individual can serve as mentor and sponsor it is unlikely. Sponsors are door openers for their protegees but they typically lack the patience, willingness or bandwidth to seve as your coach. They have picked you as protegee for what you bring to table.
    Does not mean that an individual cannot serve as sponsor for one person and mentor for another — just that very few people can do the same role together.

    To your question, should a company establish both – the answer is yes (and I believe most do.) Mentorship programs are well publicized typically, sponsorship programs aren’t — they take different forms such as Leadership Development, Succession planning etc.

  6. Phyllis Stewart Pires October 19, 2010 at 2:47 pm #

    Hi Jonathan –

    Thanks for sharing this. I agree that the true “metrics moving” impact comes from sponsorship. One question for me is how best to intentionally increase the number of sponsorships that exist – and believe that a good mentoring program can help to foster those. Sponsorships are relationships that need to be based on trust having been built over a period of time vs. just a “blind” pairing. One of the pieces of data I want to collect after this second round of mentoring pairings is how many “sponsorships” have emerged and are continuing. I’m aware of a couple of our mentoring pairings that now would be described as sponsorships – the actions being taken by the mentor fall much more into the right hand side of the chart. One question I want to explore with the team working with me on this effort is are there additional ways to “nudge” the relationships onto the sponsorship side of the equation – truly increase the sense of accountability the leader feels for progressing the careers of his/her sponsorees.

    • Renate Aguilera May 1, 2012 at 12:57 pm #

      Hi Phyllis,
      Your post has been posted a while ago. Exploring the same question that you decribed above, I wonder if after now 1.5 yrs there is anything you could share with me on how you went about nudging mentorship relationships onto the sponsorship side of the equation.

  7. Julie Barrier October 27, 2010 at 7:38 pm #

    Jonathan, Thanks for your interesting post. Very thought-provoking. It seems to me that there are a few dimensions here:
    1. If women started their careers on equal footing as men, then what would that evolution path look like? According to the HBR article that you cite, “Women in Management: Delusions of Progress”, the research firm – Catalyst – “found that men started their careers at higher levels than women” and – as Anne Mulcahy points out – “Companies have gotten very good at managing grade levels and salary dispersions, (but) if you come in the door in the wrong placement, (companies’) systems aren’t going to adjust the imbalance.”. Therefore, young women grads, fresh out of school, would perhaps benefit from targeted coaching programs – funded by universities – to help them successfully cross the bridge “from campus to corporate” (I think I just coined that expression ;-). If catch-up is virtually impossible once you’re in the door, then it’s best for young women professionals to ensure equal footing from the get go, and I think it’s up to universities to sponsor those programs. One obvious benefit to universities is that they’d be building a stronger alumni/alumna community – ie, “success stories”.
    2. Now, getting to the whole mentor vs. sponsor concept: what an eye-opener. Sponsors can certainly have quite a powerful impact on a person’s career. There’s a “skin-in-the-game” mindset and it often involves power and politics. I think it’s dangerous to rely solely on sponsors, though, since – as we all know – power and politics can be fleeting, insensitive, and unforgiving. If people (women, in this case) attach themselves solely to a sponsor, the potential demise of that sponsor could perhaps lead to a negative outcome for the person being sponsored. The most important thing that we – as people, not just women – must look for in others, and give of ourselves, is trust. If we associate ourselves with people we trust –ie, people who have our backs, and vice-versa – then we create a sense of harmony that trumps the salary differences that exist between men and women.
    3. I feel that women play a significant role in the whole “gender imbalance” issue. We are not just victims. (I feel I can say this because I am a woman, although I imagine there will be some controversy). We tend to question ourselves – ie, our competence, experience, power, leadership abilities, influence, etc. – much moreso than men do, imho. We often lack confidence, and we show it. We make excuses and apologize for things that most people wouldn’t have ever noticed, and therefore draw attention to insecurities which can lead to perceived inadequacies. Those perceptions could result in sabotage – by ourselves, and/or by others. I’m a huge fan of “coaches” – ie, external consultants. Since they are external to the company, they are completely non-threatening. They can help guide us through some of the “pain points” we experience as women, and turn them into strengths – in our lives and in our careers, and not just at the company we happen to be working for at the time. A sponsor usually cannot/will not make that type of personal investment.
    Probably lots more I could say on all of this, but wanted to share these initial thoughts.

  8. Madhur A April 20, 2011 at 6:33 am #

    Read an article from Kerrie Peraino, SVP of HR on Gender Intelligence – “Mentorships are great, but there’s this notion that we mentor women to death. A mentor invests time in you, but a sponsor invests in you.”

  9. Hutch August 25, 2012 at 6:03 am #

    Great article. I am left to ponder if company size and role have something to do with which type of relationship ultimately becomes more valuable. Big company and middle management speak to Sponsorship while smaller company and senior executive lends itself to valuing Mentorship as more valuable. Bottom line – both are justifiable and way better than going it alone!


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