by Sharon Florentine

Sponsorship vs. mentorship: Which is best for your career?

Nov 07, 2019
Careers IT Leadership Staff Management

While seemingly similar, mentorship and sponsorship offer distinct differences as workplace support and provide unique benefits for your career.

mentor senior person listening to conversation
Credit: Thinkstock

Both mentorship and sponsorship are increasingly critical for success in a competitive IT talent market, especially for women and other underrepresented minorities in technology. But there are crucial differences between the two, the biggest of which lies in access to power and visibility within an organization: Almost anyone can be a mentor, but only those with access to positions of power and leadership, and the ability to improve the visibility of those they sponsor, can serve as sponsors.

“Mentorship is a relationship in which one person provides guidance to another, and then that person ‘pays it forward,’” said Pooja Jain-Link, executive vice president of the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), speaking on a panel on Intersectional Sponsorship at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Technology in October. “Sponsorship is a two-way relationship between a senior leader and a protégée that’s based on advocacy and performance; the sponsor is helping the protégée get noticed, while that person is doing the work and ‘repaying’ them by performance and their actions.”

Mentorship vs. sponsorship: Which do you need?

Knowing whether you need a mentor or a sponsor depends on the career goals you are trying to achieve, says Megan Cohill, director of strategic technology solutions at TEKsystems. Finding a mentor can help you navigate the day-to-day, and give you guidance as you progress in your career and face new challenges. But when it comes to landing a promotion, getting assigned to an important project, or even changing careers, that’s where a sponsor is most helpful, she says.

Traditionally, sponsorship is a means by which power is transferred in organizations. That access to power and the ability to use it on behalf of someone else is the crucial difference between mentorship and sponsorship.

“I define a sponsor as someone who has power and influence, and who speaks on your behalf when you’re not in the room,” Cohill says. “A mentor is someone who you can rely on for advice — career and otherwise — and who can coach you to make the right moves.”

In some cases, Cohill says, mentors and sponsors are intertwined: “The mentor can advise you on how to get on a potential sponsor’s radar. Especially when you’re first entering the work force, it can be impossible to attract the attention of sponsors, so you need to make the mentoring connection first, and then the sponsor relationship.”

The need for intersectional sponsorship

Because sponsorship is a lever of power, it can be problematic if attention is not paid to increasing the visibility of women and underrepresented minorities in tech, says Jain-Link. According to The Sponsor Dividend, a research study CTI conducted in January 2018, 71 percent of those sponsoring others reported that they are the same race or gender as their protégées.

“Unfortunately, in most organizations, especially in technology, the person they reach down and tap to sponsor is someone who looks like themselves,” Jain-Link said at Grace Hopper Celebration. “It’s very pale and male, and that’s why much of IT leadership all looks the same. That’s been the undercurrent that’s fueling that transfer of power.”

Benefits of sponsorship

Sponsorship can improve representation, morale, engagement and rates of advancement across and organization, according to the CTI research. In fact, 68 percent of women, 67 percent of white people, and 56 percent of people of color with sponsors were satisfied with their rate of advancement, compared to the 57 percent, 45 percent and 34 percent of respondents without sponsors, respectively.  But sponsorship must be intentional, said Rachel Cheeks-Givan, global diversity and inclusion lead at Pfizer, on the Intersectional Sponsorship panel at Grace Hopper Celebration.

“A lot of sponsorship is unconscious, and happens when people see those who remind them of their younger selves,” said Camille Fournier, head of platform engineering at Two Sigma, another panelist at Grace Hopper Celebration. “Of course, sometimes you have that lucky experience when you find someone ideal who gives you those opportunities, but it’s much too rare.”

If sponsor-protégée relationships are not forming spontaneously, it’s imperative that a more formal structure be set up to ensure the benefits are achieved within your organization, Cheeks-Givan said.

How to get sponsorship right

“There are two schools of thought on this,” Cheeks-Given said. “It’s either, ‘Yes, we’re going to formally match people and hope it works out,’ or ‘Okay, this has to be organic and grow naturally.’” To make sure sponsorship is intentional, Jain-Link added, it’s important for your entire organization to understand the definition of sponsorship, what the expectations are for the participants and the organization as a whole, and what success looks like.

“A lot of people and organizations set out to create sponsorship programs and end up with mentors and mentorship programs,” she said. “Look at what your career goals are, for both individuals and organizations, and who can help you get there. You also have to be authentic and remember that differences can be assets. And remember that these relationships have to be symbiotic — you’re both delivering for each other.”

To these ends, cross-functional pairings work nicely, says TEKsystems’ Cohill, both for access as well as feedback. While sponsor-protégée relationships can be successful if the persons involved are from the same background, race, gender, sex, or the same department or management level, sometimes that can be detrimental, she says.

“Sometimes they’re so close to your work and your life that it can make things biased,” Cohill says. “They can’t see the forest for the trees sometimes. Of course, if you’re just starting out, these kinds of relationships can be healthy, because you have to start building that web of connections somewhere; but overall, as you progress, making sure there are those purposeful differences gets more important.”