Moving From Mentoring to Sponsorship

Posted on 02/19/2021 10:56 am  /   February 2021

I often begin my mentoring workshops by having participants reflect on the best mentors they have had in their careers. It is a great way to set the stage for discussing mentoring, as most of us have had at least one person we think of as a mentor who played an important role in our career.

Mentors are great sounding boards, listeners, and advice givers who help us see the potential of where we could build our confidence to get there.

The role of mentor is largely a supportive one where the mentor guides and advises.

There are times, however, when it makes sense for a mentor to take a more active role and “sponsor” a protégé, especially inside an organization.

Sponsorship is a role above and beyond mentoring in several significant ways, according to Herminia Ibarra.

Sponsors create opportunities for protégés to grow and showcase their skills. They advocate on behalf of their protégés with other senior leaders. And they protect their protégé, especially when a risk a protégé has taken may damage her or his reputation.

The benefits of sponsorship to the protégé in terms of career growth are fairly large. A study by the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) found that 69% of employees with sponsors were satisfied with their role advancement compared to 57% of those without sponsors.

Sponsorship is an especially critical component for an organization’s DE&I efforts.

Another CTI study found that 71% of sponsors were the same gender or ethnicity as their primary protégé. That becomes a problem since men occupy close to 70% of senior leadership roles and whites occupy more than 80% of senior leader roles.

Further, fewer than 10% of under-represented minorities felt they had a sponsor within their organization. Combined, these statistics lead to the perpetuation of a “mini-me” syndrome, where sponsors gravitate to demographically similar protégés.

Organizations can help change some of these dynamics by being intentional in how they manage mentoring and sponsorship in their organizations.

First, they can ensure any mentoring programs they manage has demographic diversity in both their mentor and protégé pools. Make sure that everyone feels mentoring (and, by extension, sponsorship) is available to them.

Second, teach mentors about sponsorship and how they can grow their relationships with their protégés into the sponsorship role. The role of sponsor is not risk free, and mentors may hesitate to extend their personal reputations to the benefit of their protégés. Give the mentors resources and examples of ways they can sponsor their protégés.

Finally, track outcome metrics for your protégés. See if those who are sponsored do indeed see career growth and advancement.

Rik Nemanick, Ph.D. is a member of the SHRM St. Louis mentoring committee and helps his client develop leaders through mentoring and coaching through his firm, The Leadership Effect. He is the author of the book, The Mentor’s Way and is adjunct faculty for the Human Resource Management Masters program at Washington University.