What’s the Difference Between Mentorship and Sponsorship?
Part Two: Am I a Sponsor?
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 post focused on the public nature of sponsorship. In today’s post, we consider the leadership qualities that make someone a sponsor.
Are You a Sponsor or a Mentor?
As we write this, we’re in the midst of our first cohort of Signature Strive, a year-long leadership development program for exceptional rising executives from a dozen of our global partners. Sponsorship is a key component of the program, so we’re spending substantial time coaching senior executives on how to sponsor their protégés.
Through these conversations, we uncover a lot of uncertainties about the nature of sponsorship — even from those who think they're doing it right. It all comes down to a common underlying question: Am I a sponsor?
The following Q&A has been drawn from a variety of conversations with our Strive Seniors Sponsors, and highlights key questions they have served up along our journey together.
On Giving Advice and Guidance
“I meet with Dionne a few times a month. I ask her what she’s struggling with, and offer her advice based on my own experiences. Is that sponsorship?”
It sounds like you’re being a very good mentor to Dionne, and that’s a valuable way to support her. However, this alone doesn’t make you a sponsor. You’re giving her good advice on what she should do to advance her career, but you’re not yet investing any of your own professional capital to help her do it.
“I’m Paula’s biggest supporter. I think she has a bright future with the company, and I tell her so regularly. It’s not just generic cheerleading. I try to point out specific things she’s done well, and reinforce how these will continue to advance her career. Am I her sponsor?”
Paula undoubtedly appreciates the belief you have in her, and the detailed encouragement you give is good mentoring. However, sponsors do more than celebrate the victories of their proteges. They create opportunities for these victories to have broader visibility. A true sponsor might guide Paula to do a lunch and learn in the sponsor’s area, or in a different business unit, to get greater exposure.
On Connecting and Creating Opportunities to Grow
“I’ve introduced Ana to several people in my network — people both at her leadership level and at mine. When I introduce her, I always share some of her accomplishments and express my confidence in her future with the company. Does that make me a sponsor?”
Great work, sponsor! You’re helping Ana develop her professional network: a foundation of support she’ll need as she advances in her career. You’re also going public with your investment in her success.
“I needed help with an important project on my plate. I knew it would stretch Aiko beyond her current experience, but I believed in her ability to figure it out. She did great work on the project, and I’m thinking about what to give to her next. Am I a sponsor?”
You’ve given Aiko an opportunity to develop her skills and prove her potential, not just to you but to everyone who witnessed her work on the project. If it gave her the opportunity to work with senior leaders she hasn’t worked with before, then this is good sponsorship. You in turn, can see her success first hand and more easily recommend her to a stretch assignment in the future. You’re taking the right steps as her sponsor!
On Advocating for Advancement and Championing Success
“The SVP for Finance announced he would be leaving at the end of the year. In a meeting with the president and the other SVPs, a few names were floated as his possible successor. I was surprised that no one mentioned Hannah, who seemed to me to be the obvious choice. I spoke up and explained why I thought she was the best person for the job. Was that sponsorship?”
Bravo! You championed Hannah for a career-making promotion that would otherwise have passed her by. You did this even though she wasn’t in the room, and you invested your own political capital to present her as the best candidate for the position. This is one of the most critical kinds of support that a sponsor can give.
“Based on my recommendations, Margot was put in charge of our company’s latest digital transformation initiative, a project that I knew had the CEO’s full attention. I checked in with her regularly to monitor her progress. At one point in the project, she was really struggling to get buy-in from the CIO. I helped her prepare for a discussion with him, and when I had the chance to see him next, I gave him a nudge in the right direction. Is that sponsorship?”
You’ve highlighted something important here about your role as a sponsor. You put your own reputation on the line when you recommended Margot for the initiative. If she fails, it’s going to hurt your reputation too. These are the bold stakes of sponsorship, so you need to do everything in your power to make sure your protégé succeeds. You stepped in at a crucial moment here, gave her private coaching, and then helped remove a barrier. Check mark for good sponsorship!
A Spectrum of Support
Every single example above illustrates a way in which senior leaders can be supportive of those coming up the ladder behind them. Not all of it rises to the level of sponsorship, but that’s not meant to diminish it.
Sponsorship is on one side of a spectrum of supportive leadership, but it is one of the most effective ways to accelerate rising talent that would otherwise lag in the pipeline due to lack of exposure to decision makers. Organizations benefit most when leaders see sponsorship as integral to their leadership success.
If you’re currently supporting people privately as a mentor, that’s wonderful too. You’re already doing something valuable, and it’s a great place to begin your journey to becoming a sponsor.
Transform Your Leaders from Mentors to Sponsors
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.