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What’s the Difference Between Mentorship and Sponsorship?

Posted by Signature Leaders on Jul 7, 2021 10:00:00 AM
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Part One: Sponsorship is Done Publicly

As a growing number of our partners prioritize sponsorship to increase the velocity of diverse and rising executives, we’ll be taking an ongoing look at some of the key behaviors for effective sponsorship. In today’s post, we focus on the public nature of sponsorship.

A Protégé Asks for Help

We recently started a new Signature Strive program with a dozen global partners. This year-long leadership development program for high-potential rising executives pairs each participant with a senior sponsor: a leader 1-2 levels above them and relatively unknown to each other. A significant part of this learning journey is coaching the senior executives on what good sponsorship looks like and how it is different than mentorship.

One of our senior sponsors, Aaron, took the learning and put it into action.

Aaron is serving as a senior sponsor to one of the program’s rising executives, Jordan, who works in a different business unit. They are at the beginning of their relationship journey. Jordan had been asked to give a presentation to her senior leadership team about her vision and strategy for a new initiative at the company. It was a great opportunity for her to showcase her leadership potential.

It was Jordan’s first presentation to a senior-level audience, and she wanted to get it right. She asked Aaron for help.

Aaron gave her some advice. “Here’s what you should think about… Here’s what you might include…” He guided her on how to approach the presentation together and deliver it well.

Jordan gave a successful presentation, then came back to discuss the experience with Aaron, who was enthusiastic, supportive, and eager to continue helping.

Private Support is Mentorship

Up to this point in the story, everything Aaron had done for Jordan happened in private. He was:

  • Giving one-on-one advice
  • Encouraging her as she took on new challenges
  • Congratulating her on her success

If Aaron had stopped there, he might have been an effective mentor to Jordan, but he wouldn’t have been a true sponsor.

Mentorship is generally one-on-one advice and guidance. Mentors share their wisdom but invest no political capital in their mentees. They don’t take a public stand in support of their mentees’ career advancement.

Mentors can add a lot of value to an organization. As Signature Leaders CEO Carol Seymour said in a speech on sponsorship at the 2018 Annual Paradigm for Parity summit (, “Mentors add a lot of value to the careers of employees, but sponsors put their reputation on the line to change the velocity of their protégés’ careers.”

Public Support is Sponsorship

Aaron did more than give Jordan feedback, and his next step is a behavior sponsors demonstrate. He reached out directly to some of the members of Jordan’s senior leadership, his own colleagues. He asked them for their perspectives on the quality of her presentation, and for feedback on her delivery. With a better understanding of how Jordan was perceived by her leaders, Aaron was able to give her higher quality feedback and advice.

But Aaron’s outreach had an even more important impact: He had gone public with his investment in Jordan’s success. He had highlighted her as a leader with advancement potential and the public support of a more senior leader in the organization.

This was an important step in Aaron’s journey from mentorship to sponsorship.

Sponsorship includes outward advocacy of a protégé that strengthens their network and opens up new opportunities for advancement. Sponsors invest their own political capital in their protégés.

As Seymour states, “In our Strive program, our Sponsor group now has an understanding of the range of actions and behaviors they can take with protégés to make the move from Mentor to Sponsor. Building trusted relationships with someone you don’t know does not happen overnight. It is a journey for both the Sponsor and protégé.”

Going public is the all-important beginning of sponsorship, but it’s not the end. There’s a lot more that goes into developing effective sponsorship in a culture of inclusive leadership. We’ll cover some of the other critical actions in future posts.

Developing Effective Sponsorship in Your Organization

In response to increased requests from our partners, we’re expanding our sponsorship programs, consulting, and support and starting a second cohort for Strive. If you’ve prioritized developing a culture of inclusive leadership through sponsorship, contact us and let us know how we can help.

Topics: Developing People, Sponsorship, Women in Business, Relationships

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