What’s the Difference Between Mentorship and Sponsorship?
Part Three: Am I Being Sponsored?
As a growing number of our partners prioritize sponsorship to increase the velocity of diverse and rising executives, we’re taking an ongoing look at some of the key behaviors for effective sponsorship. Our previous two posts have focused on the public nature of sponsorship, and answered questions from senior leaders wondering, “Am I a Sponsor?” In today’s post, we answer questions from rising leaders who are wondering, “Am I Being Sponsored?”
Are You Being Sponsored or Mentored?
Over eight years of developing more than 1600 female leaders from the Director to C-suite levels, we have seen firsthand how important sponsorship is for the visibility and career velocity of the impressive women leaders we serve. When I ask the participants of each cohort to raise their hands if they have an internal sponsor, almost everyone raises their hand. Most think their manager is a sponsor.
When we delve into the differences, our participants realize they have great mentors and supportive managers, but few really have a sponsor. How do you know if you are being sponsored?
The following Q&A is drawn from a variety of conversations with our Signature participants and highlights key questions they often ask during our time together. Each question generally aims to answer the bigger question, “Am I being sponsored?”
On Private Advice and Encouragement
“Victoria takes me to lunch two or three times a month to talk about my growth as a leader. Our conversations have been so helpful to me as I work to understand the value of my unique gifts and develop my own authentic leadership style. Am I being sponsored?”
First of all, great work leaning into the value of your own, individual talents and leadership approach. It sounds like Victoria’s support has been very helpful to you. However, unless that support extends beyond these private conversations, you’re currently being mentored, not sponsored. As you're experiencing, mentorship is valuable, but to increase the velocity of your career, you need more.
“When I first joined the company, Cameron really took me under his wing, giving me critical insider insights into how leaders advance here. He has helped me identify and fill important gaps in my leadership skill set, and he regularly gives me advice on how to further my career. Is that sponsorship?”
A guide like this is so important when you join a new company. You arrive unfamiliar with the implicit cultural norms and unwritten rules. Cameron has given you a map to help you navigate your career path and is starting to show actions that could lead to being a sponsor. These are great signs and ones you can now capitalize on. Spend time with Cameron, and perhaps ask him how you can be part of one of his initiatives or where he can recommend you for a growth opportunity on a special enterprise project. Once he can see you in action, he can begin to walk a more active path with you, advocating for you with confidence.
On Increasing Your Visibility
“Imani has greatly expanded my network at the company. She brings me into high-level meetings I wouldn’t otherwise be invited to attend, and she introduces me to the other VPs. She has also recommended me for special projects with other business divisions. Is she sponsoring me?”
Yes! While sponsors often tell others about the value you bring, it’s important that you’re also seen in action by other leaders who can advance your career. Sponsors create these opportunities for their protégés: introducing them to their network, including them in important discussions, and giving or recommending them for stretch assignments outside their present visibility. Imani’s sponsorship of you is increasing your exposure and opening up new opportunities to accelerate your career.
On Public Endorsements and Advocacy
“My company recently launched a new service line. At first, I wasn’t even aware this was in the works, but Dominic was. In a succession plan meeting, Dominic recommended me for leading the P&L for this new area. From what another VP later told me, he argued pretty forcefully on my behalf. The executive team was convinced, and I was promoted to lead this new service offering. Was that sponsorship?”
Sponsorship at its best and fullest force is when someone higher up publicly endorses you, advocating for your promotion and stretch opportunities, as Dominic has done. Sponsors are your voice, even when you’re not in the room. They put their own reputation on the line for you, because they know you have the capabilities needed to perform. They know this because you have demonstrated these skills in action and articulated how you want to use them for the greater benefit of the organization.
On Help With Navigating Relationships
“Sakura has been helping me work on influencing without authority. It’s something we’re all challenged with as leaders. She doesn’t tell me how to do it. Instead, she helps me think through who I need to speak with in order to influence decisions, then encourages me to approach them in my own authentic style. If I’m not already connected to a key leader I need to reach, she’ll connect with them personally to introduce me. Is that sponsorship?”
This is a wonderful example of how dynamic the sponsor role can be. In the example you give, Sakura is giving you valuable strategic advice about a complex leadership challenge: influencing without authority. If that’s all she did, she’d be a valuable mentor to you, but not a sponsor. However, she is also watching out for the hurdles that might get in the way of you implementing her advice. When you need it, she’s stepping in to connect you with someone in her network, setting you up for success. Sounds like you have a good sponsor!
A Spectrum of Support
Every example above illustrates a way in which you may receive support from more senior leaders. Not all of it rises to the level of sponsorship, but that’s not meant to make less of it.
Sponsorship is just one end of a spectrum of supportive leadership, but it is one of the most effective ways to increase the visibility and velocity of your career, as both a protégé and a sponsor. If you’re currently receiving support privately as a mentor, that’s valuable too. It’s a great place to begin your journey. But if you want to unlock your full leadership potential, you’re going to need (and then become) a sponsor.
When You Have a Mentor But You Need a Sponsor…
In response to increased requests from our partners, we’re expanding our sponsorship programs, consulting, and support. If your company has prioritized developing a culture of inclusive leadership through sponsorship, contact us and let us know how we can help.