Whatever trajectory someone takes in their career or the experiences they gather along the way, the people they grow relationships with will ultimately play a vital role in their development and success.
Two roles often play a major part in the advancement and development of professionals from underrepresented groups that, historically, have not been granted a fair shot at climbing the corporate ladder: sponsors and mentors.
Research from the Center for Talent Innovation shows that professionals from non-white ethnic backgrounds, women and members of the LGBTQ+ community typically require some navigational support in advancing their careers, but they receive it less frequently than Caucasian males.
The function of each role is important, and while they may overlap at times, the two are quite different. Typically, one individual will not serve as both sponsor and mentor for reasons we will outline below.
Sponsors vs. Mentors
What a sponsor and mentor each do differs depending on a protégé’s or mentee’s overall goals. For sponsors, investing in the protégé’s career path and advocating for their advancement is part of their duty. For this reason, sponsors are most often in a position of power where they can wield influence and actively help the protégé achieve their goals.
Sponsors don’t have to be within the same organization as a protégé, but they will have intimate knowledge of how the protégé can strategize their advancement through vertical or horizontal moves, make important introductions, and open doors the person would otherwise be unable to access.
Mentors’ goals, on the other hand, are not necessarily tied to achievement but rather development. Whether that’s helping someone establish a vision for their career, expanding their network, or working through day-to-day challenges and decision-making.
A common misconception of mentors is that the mentee is going to be younger than the mentor. On the contrary, the defining aspect of a mentor-mentee relationship is around experience or knowledge. The more experienced or knowledgeable person serves as the mentor to provide guidance, helping the less-experienced person gain knowledge or experience around a specific area or industry.
Mentors can sometimes become sponsors, while sponsors can sometimes act as mentors. The factor differentiating the two boils down to stakes and the impact a mentor or sponsor has on the bigger picture of a person’s career. In either case, the adviser will help the person develop and grow professionally, but the sponsor is particularly important in the advancement of women and people of color.
“There’s a big difference between a mentor and a sponsor and the impact that they have on your career,” Marion Brooks, Vice President of U.S. Country, Head Diversity and Inclusion at Novartis (a DiversityInc Hall of Fame Company), said in a recent DiversityInc webinar. “When you look at the research and even anecdotal information, what we’ve found is that women and people of color are historically over-mentored and under-sponsored.”
“The sponsorship component is when you go from having that mentoring relationship with someone giving you advice, to someone speaking on your behalf when you are not in the room, and there’s a way that you actually take people from being your mentors to your sponsors,” Brooks added, underscoring that it’s ultimately “ based on your performance as well as your engagement in the mentoring relationship.”
Components of Best-in-Class Programs
Programs that cultivate mentor or sponsor relationships work best when they provide a safe space for candid conversations. Establishing this space allows the mentee or protégé to make their goals clear and provides the mentor or sponsor the opportunity to clearly communicate what those goals will demand, the challenges that sit in the person’s way and the actions required from each of them.
A successful sponsorship involves a senior leader playing an active role in the protégés advancement. One crucial step is developing a narrative around the protégé’s career that they have worked on together, preparing the sponsor to advocate for the protégé when they aren’t in the room.
Sponsorship can take many forms, from priming the protégé to take over the senior person’s role in the future, to advocating for the protégé when speaking with the C-suite or Board of Directors. They will provide stretch opportunities so the protégé can develop new skills or work in environments relevant to future desired roles.
Typically, a mentorship has the mentee’s growth as the central focus and makes it a crucial element in how each party defines success. Mentors should provide guidance focused on career mapping, corporate culture, soft skills, organizational awareness, work-life balance and learning opportunities.
Mentorship is also vital in engaging talent around their goals, driving growth and retaining high-potential employees. There are a variety of ways a company can provide unbiased access to mentors for those who wish to be mentored, from artificial intelligence programs matching mentors and mentees to affinity and employee resource groups creating bonds through other activities.
Unlike sponsorship, mentoring can actually go both ways; junior employees can coach senior management on pain points such as technology and upskilling or cultivating an environment of inclusivity.