Sponsor vs Mentor: Differences & Benefits

Sponsorship vs mentoring: which is better?

Effective leaders know that considering employees’ potential and talent – and how to develop it in the short term and over time – is one of the most important aspects of building a high-performing team. Engaging sponsors and mentors can fast-track both individual and collective growth and performance.

Sponsors and mentors alike are incredibly valuable in the context of professional development and career advancement. And they’re also frequently confused. Sponsorship and mentorship both leverage a relationship in a professional setting. And both sponsors and mentors draw on their experience and knowledge to provide strategies and guidance that support development.

So, what’s the difference between a sponsor and a mentor? And when it comes to career advancement and building high performing teams, which is better: sponsorship versus mentoring?

In this article, we’ll explore:

  • Key differences between sponsors and mentors
  • Understanding the impact of sponsorship
  • How to get started with sponsorship

Key differences between sponsors and mentors

While both mentorship and sponsorship can support career development, there are some important differences to understand – namely authority and influence.

Referencing a quantitative review of mentoring research featured in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency defines mentoring as a “relationship [that] provides support for the protégé with psycho-social support whereas sponsorship involves proactive instrumental help to advance a person’s career.”

The critical difference in a sponsorship relationship versus a mentorship relationship is the authority and influence that the sponsor holds within their position in the organisation. Essentially, the sponsor has the ability to directly advocate for and influence decision making regarding the career advancement of the sponsee – in a way, the sponsee becomes the sponsor’s protégé. Conversely, the mentor is only able to influence the mentee directly – not the organisation, its leaders or key business decision makers.

Harvard Business Review defines the difference between sponsors versus mentors perfectly: “While a mentor is someone who has knowledge and will share it with you, a sponsor is a person who has power and will use it for you.”

Inkling insights: Sponsorship and mentorship exist on the same spectrum. Sponsorship can take many forms including strategising, advocating, connecting, and giving opportunities. In fact, mentoring can be included in sponsorship activities – though sponsorship is rarely part of mentoring.

Mentoring

Mentoring has been used by organisations and individuals alike as a method to support professional development. The purpose of mentoring is to connect a less experienced mentee with a seasoned mentor, tap into their knowledge, skills and experience, and transfer that to the mentee in order to support their professional development.

Mentoring relationships typically exist between a more experienced mentor and a less experienced mentee though this doesn’t mean that the mentor has to be in the leadership or executive role – they simply need to possess skills and experience that the mentee lacks.

Sometimes, but not always, the relationship exists outside of the workplace which offers objectivity that’s not accessible when mentoring relationships exist between two parties from the same organisation. And the mentor-mentee relationship is almost always conducted privately – there is no requirement for the mentor to publicly advocate for the mentee.

The role of the mentor:

  • Provide career guidance, support, feedback, and knowledge.
  • Through discussion and guidance, help the mentee determine career paths and provide support with career goals.
  • Focus on the mentee’s personal and professional development.

When it comes to expanding skillsets and supporting career goals, mentoring is incredibly effective – especially at the earlier career stages where there are many skills and behaviours to be learned and experience to be acquired. However, there are limitations to the effectiveness of the mentoring process particularly in more senior levels where advocacy is key to advancement.

Inkling insight: While mentoring is a popular approach to advance leaders and their seniority,  there has been little improvement in the representation of under-represented groups at senior leader levels. Tried and tested methods such as mentoring alone are not as effective in reaching diversity and inclusivity at a leadership level.

Sponsoring

Sponsors are typically senior leaders with significant ownership of responsibilities and strong relationship capital. Through their position, authority and professional network, they have the ability to influence decision making in the organisation. With this in mind, sponsorship relationships typically exist in the public arena with the sponsor visibly using their position and influence to support the career advancement of the sponsee – a less experienced employee with demonstrable leadership potential.

Like mentorship, sponsorship is also a method of supporting career advancement however it goes beyond a traditional mentoring process by leveraging the position and influence of the sponsor to proactively advocate for the progression of the sponsee. In addition to providing career guidance and advice to their sponsee, the sponsor also uses their own influence to give the sponsee the exposure required to access career opportunities and gain more senior roles.

The role of the sponsor:

  • Use relationship capital to advocate for their sponsee’s career advancement.
  • Actively advocate and champion the sponsee’s potential, performance and value among senior stakeholders and business decision makers.
  • Use influence to help the sponsee obtain high-visibility work.
  • Provide sponsee with “air cover” for risk-taking and growth.
  • Protect sponsee from negative publicity and fights for their promotion.

Inkling insight: Many leaders who consider themselves sponsors are actually engaging in mentoring behaviours. Senior leaders must invest in building their sponsorship capability – as there are key skills, a different mindset and behaviours that drive successful sponsorship

Understanding the impact of sponsorship

When it comes to sponsorship versus mentorship which one is more effective at supporting career advancement and building talent sustainability within the organisation?

While both sponsorship and mentorship function to establish connections, and support the growth and success of individuals at varying career stages, a report by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency shows that sponsorship is more effective at driving career advancement, particularly for under-represented groups.

Here are just a few of the ways that sponsorship positively impacts future leaders and their organisations. In short: here’s why you need a sponsor and not a mentor.

Sponsors elevate protégés careers

Unlike mentoring which has no requirement for advocacy, sponsorship functions to accelerate the sponsee’s career progression within the organisation through advocacy, connection, and creation of opportunities.

Advocacy is important as people progress up the career ladder the number of opportunities available reduces while at the same time competition for those roles and promotions increases. Under these circumstances, the advocacy provided by a sponsor is hugely beneficial to the sponsee in securing career advancement.

Sponsors reap the rewards too

It’s important to remember that sponsors have their own responsibilities and key performance indicators that they are required to meet outside of the sponsorship process. Interestingly, it’s the sponsorship process that can actually help them achieve many of their professional objectives and elevate their career, too.

Research by Coqual shows that sponsors experienced increased levels of satisfaction in their own career advancement with 61 percent of men and 60 percent of women surveyed were satisfied with their rate of advancement.

Additionally, the Coqual research indicated that sponsors experienced an expansion in their capacity to get things done and were “more likely than non-sponsors to be satisfied with their ability to deliver on ‘mission-impossible’ projects.”

Where the sponsorship process results in the sponsee successfully advancing within the organisation, the sponsor is seen as a leader who makes smart business decisions regarding talent. In turn, the sponsor’s own reputation within the organisation is elevated.

Sponsorship creates diverse and inclusive workplaces

It’s no secret that there is a lack of diversity at the senior leadership, executive, and board levels of organisations in Australia and around the world. In fact, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, women make up only 32.5% of key management positions and 28.1% of director positions. At the executive and board level, the numbers are even less inspiring with women holding only 18.3% of CEO positions and 14.6% of board chairs.

Figures are worse again when it comes to diversity and inclusion with a study by the Australian Human Rights Commission reporting that “almost 95 percent of senior leaders at the chief executive or ‘c-suite’ levels have an Anglo-Celtic or European background.”

Interestingly, Catalyst research confirms that compared to men, women start out at a disadvantage in their careers and often remain there even with mentoring. However, when women are paired with an influential sponsor who champions their progression they are more likely to be promoted. Additionally, a McKinsey study in the United States found that despite ambitious career goals and potential “black employees lacked the sponsorship and allyship to support their advancement.”

Here’s where sponsorship can really transform an organisation and influence a broader shift in corporate culture. By pairing diverse talent with influential senior leaders, organisations can work to create gender and cultural equity.

Put simply? Sponsorship can be an equity and diversity game-changer.

Inkling insight: Lean into difference. Sponsors and sponsees come with different histories, experiences, backgrounds and mindsets. Delve into this! This is the stuff that makes or breaks sponsorship and can turn a mediocre outcome into a great one.

How organisations benefit from sponsorship

Sponsorship doesn’t just benefit the sponsor and the sponsee. According to a paper by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, organisations that implement successful sponsorship programs can experience increased job satisfaction and organisational commitment among their employees as well as, higher-performing teams and leaders, and increased diversity at senior levels.

According to Harvard Business Review, “Research shows that external hires take longer to adapt and have higher rates of voluntary and involuntary exits.” On the contrary, when organisations promote from within this tends to result in higher rates of loyalty and engagement along with the added benefit of the employee already being familiar with the company culture

Organisations that implement a sponsorship strategy can benefit from increased employee engagement and loyalty as well as avoiding the risk and costs associated with hiring externally and onboarding a new recruit to the company.

Inkling insight: Successful sponsorship relationships allow the sponsor to remain connected to aspects of the organisation that may not be evident to them, as well as introducing the sponsor to different perspectives and the positive impact of diversity and inclusion.

How to get started with sponsorship

While promotion is the core purpose of sponsorship, the organisation, the sponsor and the sponsee all benefit from the process. While there are immense benefits to sponsorship, it’s crucial to Introduce a sponsorship process within a strategic framework – in order to ensure its successfully implemented.

At Inkling, to get started with sponsorship, we recommend organisations first establish their vision and purpose for sponsorship, then reflect on what sponsorship means and what they can do differently.

The process of sponsorship involves a series of steps.

The sponsorship process

To get started with building an effective sponsorship program, organisations need to establish their starting point. Three questions and considerations we recommend looking at are:

  1. Do you have sponsorship capability within your organisation, or is the focus on coaching and mentoring (which will not support career advancement)?

Once a baseline has been established and goals and objectives have been defined, a sponsorship process should include these four effective steps:

  1. Meet and build rapport
    Have a discussion and get to know their work, vision, values and ambitions along with barriers and challenges they may be facing. Share and explore each other’s strengths and how they’re applied to the workplace.
  2. Discuss expectations, guidelines and goals
    Spend some time coming up with some additional guidelines and expectations you both have for your time, resources and aims for the program together to ensure you both get the most out of the program.
  3. Activity considerations

Sponsorship can vary from person to person. With that in mind, we recommend that the sponsorship experience is tailored based on what the sponsee wants to get out of the experience, paired with the types of experiences the sponsor can provide.

  1. Advocate, progress and plan next steps

Once the expectations, activities and desired outcomes for the sponsorship process are mapped out, it’s time to start championing.

Inkling insight: Start with your vision. Both sponsors and sponsees benefit from sponsorship, and this needs to be reflected on and explored together very early in the process.

Stepping into sponsorship

Are you ready to put sponsorship into action within your organisation? Get in touch with the Inkling team if you want to find out more about our tailoring a development experience to cultivate sponsors within your organisation.

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