Speaker Articles

For Accelerating Your Career, Mentorship Is Great—But Sponsorship Is Better

Deb-Pine-BentleyBy Deb Pine, Executive Director, Center for Women and Business at Bentley University

Despite our strong mentor networks, women remain underrepresented in senior leadership and board roles. The 2016 McKinsey/LeanIn study “Women in the Workplace” found that women hold 46 percent of professional, entry-level positions but only 19 percent of C-suite roles. Does this mean that our mentors are failing us? No. Mentors are critical to guiding women on how to advance their careers—what to know, who to know and where the opportunities may lie.

But the path to leadership requires women to cultivate and add sponsors to their network. Research from the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) found that sponsors, not mentors, directly affect promotions, salary increases and access to high-profile assignments.

Mentors Build You Up…But Sponsors Move You Forward

There is often confusion about the difference between mentors and sponsors. The distinction between the two is in the supportive role of mentors in advancing their mentees as compared to the decisive role of sponsors in advancing their protégés. Mentors build you up while sponsors move you forward.

Mentors support mentees in developing a growth path that is focused on their career aspirations. Most often, these mentoring relationships are not visible within the organization and are driven by the needs and goals of the mentee. The mentor can be an individual at any level of the organization—manager or peer—who is willing to invest time to encourage the mentee’s growth. Mentors:

  • Help you envision your next position.
  • Identify how you can build appropriate skills and experiences.
  • Provide insight on opportunities for growth.
  • Advise you on other strategic connections you should make.

Sponsors, on the other hand, invest in their protégés and directly advocate for their advancement. The relationship is reciprocal, in that the sponsors put their own reputations on the line by publicly promoting their protégés. Sponsors are senior leaders or influencers who have the ear of management. Sponsors:

  • Recognize your talent and help you recognize your own potential.
  • Give you visibility to senior management.
  • Connect you to opportunities.
  • Speak to your strengths.
  • Make a case for your advancement.

Building Your Network

Enlisting mentors into your network is a straightforward process. You identify individuals who could provide constructive professional advice, then inquire about their willingness and availability to be your mentor. Enlisting sponsors is not as easy. Sponsorship is not requested; it is a relationship based on mutual respect and trust that is gained over time.

The foundational element of sponsorship is talent. A potential sponsor notices individuals who deliver consistent, exceptional performance. At the same time, as a potential protégé, you need to build a relationship that is mutually beneficial. Sponsorships, by nature, have an element of quid pro quo. You can demonstrate your value and commitment through project work or by taking on additional assignments. The sponsor recognizes and rewards your contributions and capabilities through advocacy and promotion.

Sponsorship primarily occurs between an employee and her manager or an employee and her second-line manager. Reflecting on my own career, my sponsor provided key opportunities for me to gain exposure, take on stretch assignments and secure my first C-level role. Two levels above me in the organization, he had seen my work and took an interest in my career. As the CEO of a large corporation, he invited me to present my work to the board, encouraged me to launch an entrepreneurial venture and, ultimately, opened up his professional network, contributing to a successful exit and acquisition of my company.

Start Now

For women at all career levels, it is never too early to start developing strategic relationships that could grow into sponsorships. Sponsorships, including my own, often develop organically, but you don’t need to wait to be noticed or be at the right place at the right time. Instead, I encourage you to pay attention to all your professional relationships, inside and outside your organization, recognize sponsorship opportunities, and nurture them.

You should also look to your mentors to recommend potential sponsors. In fact, over time, mentors themselves can become your greatest sponsors, because they have had the opportunity to watch you develop. Several years ago, I began to mentor a talented young woman in my organization. Fast forward 15 years and I recently recommended her for a C-level position in a company I advise. I also put her name forward as a candidate for a seat on a non-profit board on which I sit. As a mentor, I advised her on what opportunities to consider and how to develop her skill set. As a sponsor, I leveraged my own connections to create opportunities for her to move into senior-level roles.


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