Sponsorship vs. Mentorship – what’s the difference?

There are many articles out there that talk about the importance of having a mentor, especially for women. Companies have mentoring programs for new employees, employees who have been there for awhile, and veteran employees. Everyone advises me to get a mentor ASAP at a new company. There is co-mentorship, reverse mentorship, peer mentorship, executive mentorship and every type of mentorship in between – but what we’re missing is sponsorship.

What is the difference between mentorship and sponsorship you ask? Mentorship is about a relationship that can be one sided – having a safe place to ask questions, get advice, see things from a different perspective, expose you to other people you may not have met otherwise, usually for the main benefit of the mentee. All of these are great benefits, and that barely touches the surface, but what about the mentor? What do they get out of it besides feeling good? Maybe that’s all they want, but most often people want a two-way relationship. Introducing sponsorship.

Sponsorship (my layman’s term definition), is when that senior person actually takes an action to help you. They pull you under their wing, take a chance on you and put their neck out for you, and give you into opportunities you would not have gotten before. They’re putting their brand on you – relates a bit to borrowed light. By investing in you, they are helping to build their own success by being able to help develop you and your skills through new and often challenging, visible opportunities that trace back to them. Maybe it sounds like a one-sided street, but remember it is in their best interest to ensure you succeed. It really is a two-way relationship with mutual benefits. You do well, they look good, you get experience you would not have gotten otherwise. They get promoted, they bring you with.

The issue with this, is that many times men sponsor other men. Women obviously can sponsor other women, but the amount of women in higher leadership positions (especially in technology) is far less than the amount of men (if this is news to you, well, pull your head out of your ass).

Some folks may also say that women in leadership don’t have an interest in getting other women into leadership – more competition. I think this is for the most part untrue. In my experience, I have only met one or two women like that. The others have been more than willing to be mentors, though we didn’t get to the sponsorship point (probably because I didn’t stay with the company long enough).

As women, let’s try to change this perception and make sure we reach out and mentor and sponsor. Really it’s not a competition – maybe a promotion here or there, but in the grand scheme of things with companies touting diversity in IT and the lack of women leaders, there are plenty of leadership positions to go around. By helping get other women into them, it’s only increasing our chances as we can all feed off each other’s successes.

This all comes from a recent conversation I had around the topic and a well placed HBR article I read tonight as I’m in between calls with distributed teams. The last word from the HBR article is that women usually move up in leadership by moving companies (probably because they aren’t getting promoted or sponsored in their own companies). I can attest to moving companies — and it does work. But for companies wanting to retain their talent in the female pool, maybe they should look a bit more into sponsorship among their leaders and promoting from within.

18. February 2015 by Natalie Warnert
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