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Development or Advancement? Mentorship or Sponsorship?

Posted July 15, 2013 by Ferne Sofio in On the Ladder
Are you looking for personal and professional development? Or, are you looking for professional advancement? The answers to these two questions will determine the kind of relationship needed to achieve your professional goals.

In this article, the similarities and differences between mentoring and sponsorship are examined. Some literature uses the two terms interchangeably, but they are not the same.

What Is Mentorship?

Mentoring relationships are reciprocal in nature where the mentor and mentee benefit from sharing knowledge, collaborative learning, developing individual potential, and mentors provide psychosocial and career support to the mentee. The mentoring relationship tends to be based on good chemistry and the probability of having regular contact and results in mutual benefits for the mentor and mentee. Often, the goal of a mentoring relationship is personal development and not necessarily directly tied to a specific corporate objective. However, mentor/mentee relationships do help achieve corporate objectives, because these relationships provide opportunities to informally share cultural norms and expectations that are not explicitly stated. Ultimately, mentoring prepares one for advancement opportunities.

Formal mentoring programs provide benefits to the individuals involved in the relationships and to the organization. Mentors can build their coaching skills, provide insights about organizational issues, demonstrate their leadership abilities, and contribute to others’ professional development. These activities can increase job satisfaction for mentors and increase their reputations within the organization when mentees are successful. The mentees build their self-confidence, learn about the organization, and can reduce the culture shock if they are promoted. A few of the benefits to the organization include the affirmation of organizational values, promotion of cross-functional collaboration, knowledge transfer, a positive influence on recruitment efforts, and greater retention of valuable employees. Cultivating talented individuals should be driven by the organizational needs to promote long-term corporate growth and sustainability for individuals and organizations.

Before engaging in a mentor/mentee relationship, evaluate your needs. Think about the types of development you need and the level of commitment and trust required to achieve your goals. Following are three levels of relationships to consider.

  1. Informational
  2. Skill development
  3. Advocacy

Use these guidelines to select your mentor. An informational relationship is expected to last two to three months, but could be as simple as one fact-finding conversation, and focuses on a mentee’s specific and immediate needs. It is a low-level commitment for both parties. At the skill level, a relationship typically lasts three to six months. The mentees seek to develop a specific skill or technique, and mentors provide more guidance and share their own experiences. At the advocacy level, a high level of trust is necessary and the relationship is expected to last a minimum of six to twelve months. The connection is likely to involve mutual learning and should build relationship-oriented skills and behaviors. The mentor provides guidance and suggests additional resources to assist the mentees’ development to position them for new opportunities. As mentors and mentees develop advocacy relationships, mentors should obtain feedback from mentees about career aspirations. Mentees involved in advocacy level mentoring relationships may be more likely to seek continual advancement and sponsorship.

Mentors are not expected to advocate for a mentee’s advancement.

What Is Sponsorship?

While mentoring has some relation to promotability, only sponsorship has a positive correlation to salary progression, successful promotions, and career satisfaction. Chaisson (2005) states explicitly in the article Executive Briefing: Developing an organization-wide mentoring program, “It is often wrongly assumed that mentoring is tied to advancement. Mentoring will often play a role in advancement but it cannot be construed a guarantor of career ascendancy.” This statement has been confirmed and reaffirmed for nearly two decades. In 1996, Dreher and Cox’s article titled Race, gender, and opportunity: A study of compensation attainment and the establishment of mentoring relationships from the Journal of Applied Psychology, 81(3), 297-308, wrote that mentoring, when it includes direct coaching and sponsorship, can positively influence “advancement within organizations, organizational influence, salary attainment, and satisfaction with salary and benefits” (p. 298).

Sponsorship is a special relationship that takes mentoring to the next level. An important distinction is sponsorship requires a relationship with a senior level manager who also has influence among decision makers. Additionally, unlike mentor/mentee relationships, a sponsor selects her protégés. The sponsor does more than provide advice and feedback to the protégé. Sponsors use their positions of influence among senior leaders to advocate for their protégés’ advancement, provide access to their own professional networks, and provide strategic career guidance. They also protect their protégés from undue organizational or political harm – a professional “body block.” In other words, sponsors make advancement happen.

A mentee must drive her own development. The level of commitment sought in mentor/mentee relationships is an indicator of mentees’ current interest in development and advancement. An advocacy level mentoring relationship is most likely to result in sponsorship. The advocacy level mentoring relationship and sponsorship require strong connections with a long-term commitment by both parties to achieve desired outcomes. Mentoring and sponsorship add have value not only to the individuals involved but also to their organizations. These relationships increase employee engagement and employee satisfaction. Both also reinforce organizational values, organizational culture, and can be directly tied to organizational objectives. As more Baby Boomers continue to retire, sponsorship is critical to developing a solid leadership pipeline.

Differentiation Between Mentoring Relationships and Sponsorship

 Can sit at any level in the hierarchy Must be senior managers with influence
Provide emotional support, feedback on how to improve, and other advice Give protégés exposure to other executives who may help their careers
Serve as role models Make sure their people are considered for promising opportunities and challenging assignments
Strive to increase mentees’ sense of competence and self-worth Protect their protégés from negative publicity or damaging contact with senior executives
Focus on mentees’ personal and professional development Fight to get their people promoted


Source: Ibarra, H., Carter, N. & Silva, C. (2010). Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women. Harvard Business Review, 88(9), 80-126.

For additional reading on this important topic:

Fortune Magazine, September 21, 2012, published an article on sponsorship located at: http://management.fortune.cnn.com/2012/09/21/women-mentorship-sponsorship/?iid=SF_F_River.

Catalyst is another excellent resource for Career Girls. Find reports, studies, webinars, events, and articles related to the women and the world at catalyst.org. For additional Catalyst articles specifically about mentoring and sponsorship, visit http://catalyst.org/search/node/mentor%20sponsor.


About the Author

Ferne Sofio

Ferne Sofio believes in strengthening organizations and communities by developing people. For over fifteen years, she has mentored people young and more experienced to help them unlock and reach their potential. She values the unique qualities that make us different knowing we are much more alike than different. The analytical side of her brain aligns initiatives with organizational goals and key strategic drivers. To pursue her passions and begin a new chapter in her career, Ferne acquired a Master’s Degree in Organizational Leadership. While the majority of her career was in marketing, management, and sales. Today, she leverages her experience, education, and strengths as a Training and Development Business Consultant in higher education. This role is a tremendous opportunity to build strong teams and impact organizational culture. She also connects people in business and industry with training and education, which have the power to transform lives.