The importance of mentorship is nothing new. Many companies have formal mentorship programs in place, and it’s standard career advice that having good mentors is crucial to professional growth. While this is all true, there is a counterpart to mentorship that is just as important but rarely talked about: sponsorship.
Mentorship and sponsorship might seem like the same thing, and they do sometimes overlap. But there are distinct differences between them and they accomplish completely different objectives. I had never heard about sponsorship until more than 20 years into my career, and in hindsight, I can see the huge impact that sponsors had on my success. I wish I’d better understood both mentorship and sponsorship early in my career so I could have intentionally cultivated both.
What is Mentorship?
Mentorship involves actively seeking someone in a higher position to coach and support you. They may or may not be in your company or industry, but they should be in a rank of at least two positions above your own. This separation is important, as it prevents the tension and temptation to sell yourself to someone who is immediately above you and therefore in a position to promote you in a short period of time. A mentor’s role is not to get you promoted; it’s to provide feedback, share network contacts, and guide you along your growth path.
What is Sponsorship?
Sponsorship, by contrast, is usually someone within your organization and at any rank. A sponsor’s role is to actively advocate for you when you’re not in the room. This can come in the form of a superior contributing your name for promotions, adding you to a succession plan, or considering you for a special assignment. Sponsorship can also happen at the peer and subordinate levels, with colleagues and employees requesting to work with you, praising you to others, and crediting you with their development and success. Unlike a mentor, you don’t solicit sponsors. Your number and quality of sponsors are a direct result of your past decisions. Your results, your leadership, your aptitude, and your attitude are all things that make people want to (or not want to) sponsor you.
Wise leaders intentionally foster both mentorships and sponsorship. They seek the wisdom and guidance of those who have already achieved success while also doing right by their colleagues, bosses, peers, subordinates, and all others who are affected by their conduct. It is of critical importance during this process not to have purely selfish motives. There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious and wanting to move up, but insincerity is always obvious and always backfires. Humility and authenticity are the keys to the kingdom.