Is Sponsorship the New Mentorship?

iStock_000012303174XSmallBy Robin Madell (San Francisco)

At The Glass Hammer, we report frequently on mentorship and sponsorship. Yet we still find there’s quite a bit of confusion among women about the distinction between these types of roles and programs. In honor of Women’s History Month, we wanted to provide fresh insights and clarification from corporate diversity leaders about mentoring and sponsoring.

Some thought leaders argue that sponsorship is more of a semantic difference than a practical one when compared with traditional mentorship. Yet many diversity experts emphasize that the roles are quite different from one another, and that it’s important for women to strive to develop both types of relationships.

New or Just Different?

When asked whether she views sponsorship as the new mentorship, Maria Castañón Moats, chief diversity officer of PwC, responds that she believes sponsors and mentors are different, and both are important. “In my experience, mentors provide advice and emotional support,” says Moats. “They are people you look up to no matter what their role might be in the organization. A sponsor, in contrast, must be senior and influential. Sponsors are effective because they spend their political capital on your behalf. Sponsors go far beyond offering advice and offer opportunity!”

Having moved at PwC from senior manager, to partner, to C-level executive, Moats is in the unique position of having had mentors and sponsors who have helped her along the way, as well as mentoring and sponsoring others herself. When it comes to sponsors, Moats explains how her advocates went beyond simply giving advice:

“From my first day at the firm, I’ve had formative relationships with key sponsors—men and women who helped me grow, challenged me to take on tough assignments, and ultimately shaped the professional I’ve become,” says Moats. “They guided me toward new opportunities and helped expand my professional network by introducing me to key people both inside and outside the firm.”

Moats says she is also proud of currently serving as a sponsor. “I have several female protégés at the moment,” says Moats. “I see my role as providing candid feedback in real time and fighting to get my people the right opportunities at the right time.”

Stephanie Rogen, leadership development advisor to the White House Project, agrees that sponsorship and mentorship are labels for two distinctly different behaviors. She boils the distinction down to a simple statement: Mentors give advice and sponsors make things happen. While Rogen suggests that sponsors can be mentors and vice versa, she emphasizes that understanding the difference is critical when assessing opportunities and defining or managing your expectations with a supporter.

“Mentors are guides, advisors, and coaches,” says Rogen. “The best mentors are able to share their experiences, listen closely, and offer direction and advice to help women solve problems and navigate the workplace. Sponsors work actively on your behalf to position you or even recommend you for promotions, opportunities, and any kind of visibility that helps you to advance. Sponsors have strategic insight and perspective so that they can locate opportunities; sponsors also exert influence and have a network of relationships that align with your career goals.”

Rogen supports the idea that women need both mentors and sponsors, and in the best-case scenario, recommends having several of each. But she notes that understanding how these behaviors differ is the first step toward building the right relationships in your organization.

For example, Rogen points out that while sponsors may have less time to devote to you than mentors, they will likely invest more of their political and personal capital when they advocate for you. Mentors, on the other hand, may spend more time understanding you and your concerns, but unlike sponsors, they may be unwilling or unable to position you for the next great opportunity.

“Be sensitive to these nuances as you cultivate and nurture these relationships, look for opportunities to say thank you and to reward their efforts, and make sure you can deliver on their expectations,” recommends Rogen. “Your empathetic understanding of how these individuals are impacted by supporting you is critical to your ability to form long-term alliances that benefit both parties.”

Real-World Examples

The experience of Jennifer Miller, who participated in both mentoring and sponsorship programs while working for a multinational financial services company, can help shed light on the distinction between mentorship and sponsorship. It also helps to reveal how sponsorship can “up the ante” for women’s corporate advancement.

Miller says that she has benefited tremendously from mentoring and sponsorship—all of it informal. Her perspective is that while formal programs are well-intentioned, they often fail to hit the mark.

“I’m not anti-mentoring, but I think most companies, in their attempts to formalize a process that is at its heart an informal, free-flowing process, leads to less-than ideal results,” says Miller. The reason, she suggests, is that chemistry is a key factor in successful mentoring or sponsoring relationships. “If a mentor (or sponsor) and protégé have interpersonal chemistry, then there’s a chance that a relationship will prove beneficial,” says Miller. “If not, don’t bother.”

  • Mentoring. Miller recalls a mentorship experience at the financial firm where she worked. One of the senior-most women in her division was a strong advocate for mentoring, and made it a requirement that all of her direct reports seek out a mentor. Miller entered the picture when the executive requested that Miller serve as a mentor to someone in the executive’s group. Though Miller was more than willing to do so, she said that the mentoring experience ultimately failed because it wasn’t a good “fit.” “I didn’t have the qualifications this person needed in a mentor,” says Miller. “We were also hampered by the fact that our interpersonal chemistry was off. But we were both dedicated to the process, so we suffered through two or three awkward meetings before we finally agreed to part as mentor and mentee. Miller believes that the failure of this “semi-structured” or “forced” mentoring experience is not unique. “Many mentoring relationships that are ‘brokered’ fail because they lack an organic component necessary for success: mutual chemistry and a strong desire for the mentor to develop another person’s skills,” says Miller.
  • Sponsorship. Enter sponsorship. Though Miller notes that the financial firm where she worked had no formal “Company XYZ Sponsorship Program,” she says she “knows for a fact” that she was the recipient of sponsorship. She explains that one day, she received a call from the executive assistant for the second-in-charge at her strategic business unit, “Stan” (name changed for confidentiality). Miller was told that Stan wanted her to set up a meeting with him “to go over a few things.” “This was highly unusual, as Stan was three reporting levels above me,” says Miller. “I couldn’t go to my boss for clarification, because he was on a long-term assignment in another state. So I went to my boss’s supervisor to see if she could provide any insight as to the purpose of the meeting. ‘Well, it’s up to Stan to fill in the details, but let’s just say your name has been tossed around for a new position that’s being created,’” Miller was told. When Miller met with Stan, she discovered that indeed, he wanted to informally explore whether she would be interested in the opportunity. “I see this as sponsorship by my boss’s boss,” explains Miller. “She was in regular contact with Stan, heard there was a position being created, and put my name into consideration. This happened before the job position actually posted, so it was outside the formal job posting process. It was a sort of informal vetting process, if you will.”

Tying the Two Together

If sponsorship is a separate but equal component of effective mentorship, how can women leverage the power of the mentorship/sponsorship combo that experts suggest is needed in the current workplace? Miller’s advice for helping to build relationships with both mentors and sponsors is to make sure that your interests are known—by broadcasting that interest directly to senior leaders in your organization.

“Reach out to them and ask for a 15-minute meeting to learn more about their area of operation or expertise,” says Miller. “The women that I know who have the most satisfying careers are those who took the initiative to make known their career objectives—regardless of the job title they aspired to. Sponsors are the ones who know in advance about organizational changes. If an executive knows you want to make a move, she’ll be in a position to recommend your skills.”