Speaking to an audience of accountants and lawyers recently, specialist in developing high potential leaders Jo Larbie was surprised to hear a panel member, in response to the question “What’s the difference between sponsorship and mentoring?”, say that “they’re interchangeable.”  Confusion between the two is a common mistake made by both firms and individuals.  Evidence suggests that both can, in different ways, make a significant difference to the achievement of senior positions.  In the first of two articles, Jo explains why it is important to understand and differentiate between mentoring and sponsorship.


So what is the difference between mentorship and sponsorship?

Mentors give, whereas sponsors invest.  Mentor talk with you and sponsors talk about you. Both roles are important but very different in their impact.  Let me clarify.

A mentor can be someone who informally or formally who takes a mentee “under their wing” – advises and guides, shares their knowledge and experience; explains how things work in their organisation.  Mentors’ roles can also include supporting professional development, confidence building, emotional and personal support.  Where the relationship works well, a mentee can explore topics with their mentor that they would not direct to discuss with their manager or colleagues.  Mentors give their time to help and support their mentees.  In return, mentees are expected to listen and try to follow their advice.  As the relationship is more about the mentee, they are expected to drive the mentoring relationship and the mentor is responsive to their needs.

A sponsor is someone who takes an interest in you and invests in your career, but not purely out of altruism.  Sponsors are influential senior people who actively champion their protégés’ career advancement.  Sponsors can help their protégé to gain high visibility career accelerating opportunities and influence decisions about their promotions and remuneration, client opportunities, leadership, and entry into networks of influential business and community contacts, and increase their profile by talking about them, particularly when their protégé is not in the room.   Sponsors may advise and guide their protégé’s career, but their main role is to develop their protégé as a leader – fostering introductions, making connections and developing the skills set which will accelerate or advance their career.  The protégé’s role is to earn their sponsor’s investment in them.  Throughout the relationship, protégés are expected to deliver outstanding performance, deliver results, and build their sponsor’s brand or legacy – generally making them look good.  Sponsors see promoting and supporting their protégé’s career as an important investment in his or her personal career, vision or position within the organisation – directly or indirectly they benefit from their protégé’s successes.  Some firms even hold sponsors accountable for how well their protégés perform.

Although a mentoring relationship requires mutual trust, usually it involves little risk for the mentor.  Sponsorship, however, is high stakes for the sponsor who takes conscious risks and puts their reputation on the line, for their protégé and requires great trust on both sides. Sponsors trust that their protégé will consistently deliver outstanding performance, excellent results and feedback, building their sponsor’s reputation for identifying and promoting a future leader.  Equally, protégés must trust that their sponsor has their best interests and career goals at heart, and the power and influence to aid their career progression to the top.

To ensure their sponsor’s on-going support, the protégé must meet their expectations on all levels.  The protégé should take the initiative and be prepared to do whatever is required rather than passively waiting for their sponsor to act. This is a two-way relationship; it can be an implicit or explicit strategic alliance provided that both sponsor and protégé actively engage and deliver.  Done well, sponsorship is not about favouritism or politics (which many women and black and ethnic minority professionals (BMEs) find distasteful) and can improve transparency and build inclusion.  Sponsorship ensures that protégés get what they have worked for and deserve.

This form of sponsorship is a critical element in any leader’s career advancement and requires a fully active, rather than a semi-active, approach to the role.

Mentors or Sponsors

Mentoring programmes already take place in many firms with mixed results.  However, I think this is partly due to the way that the role may have been defined.  Mentoring, where it is for someone that you haven’t chosen, can be seen as just a HR process, requiring the mentor to meet with their mentee six times a year to discuss their career and whatever comes up.  This approach to mentoring can be perceived as a tick box exercise – the mentor has discharged their responsibility – but not much more than that.

As mentoring has become widespread in many firms, mentors are increasing viewed as advisors and counsellors – they support a mentee’s career but do not necessarily go out of their way to promote and advance it.   So, while continuing to be important for professional development, as competition for senior positions grows, to advance your career into senior positions, you will need a sponsor – a powerful and influential person who will be a strong advocate for you.  Without sponsorship, critical opportunities to broaden experience, gain valuable visibility, build connections and networks and develop skills – all of which are crucial for advancement – the chances of ascending into the “C-suite”(the domain of CEOs, COOs, CFOs and other Chief Executives) is much harder, if not impossible, to achieve.


Men discussing plans in an office environment


Mentoring, sponsorship and diversity

Cultivating a strong network and ensuring you have advocates are critical steps for advancing and developing your career – especially crucial for women and black and minority ethnic (BME) professionals who are often overlooked or left out of informal activities. While mentoring is essential, it is not enough by itself to help women and BME professionals advance to senior positions.  Sponsorship is especially critical for women and BMEs, who face stereotypes and biases.

Firm-sponsored mentoring programmes are often used as a means of increasing diversity in organizations, to support women and BME professionals’ career development.  A key benefit is that mentoring gives women and BME professionals’ greater access to senior management and influential figures in a firm and the business community, increasing the individual’s exposure and visibility, and so enhances their career prospects.  A successful mentoring relationship can provide mentees with an understanding of their firm’s culture, power structures, access to informal networks within the firm, and provide crucial access to “unwritten rules” and important knowledge.

However, without sponsorship mentoring does not provide the same career benefits for women and BME professionals as it does for others.  Sponsorship for high-potentials occurs frequently in both corporates and professional services firms, but most of the beneficiaries are men; having the personal support of an influential sponsor opens more doors and increases the chances of career advancement.

Women, in spite of their high numbers at entry level and middle management ranks in firms, have not achieved a significant breakthrough into senior positions of leadership.  In law firms, the percentage of women declines dramatically at higher levels.  Women represent half of new law trainees but, constitute only 15 per cent of equity partners, a ratio which has not changed significantly for 20 years (Report of the 7th Annual NAWL National Survey on the Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms, NAWL Foundation, October 2012).  The Lawyer’s UK 200 2017 report found only a quarter of all partners in the UK’s 200 largest firms are women and although the proportion of women partners across the UK 200 rose in 2016, it was only by a one percent. The majority of firms continue to have partnerships that are overwhelmingly white and male.  In the top 100, only 21 firms have equity partnerships that are more than 25 per cent women, compared with 24 in 2015/16 (The Worst Performing Firms in Gender diversity, Matt Byrne, 8 September 2017).   Recent research has found that the reason why more men than women are promoted is not because of any inherent differences in ability between them, but because significantly more men than women are sponsored by influential leaders who can accelerate their careers.

The research also shows that when women also have senior-level sponsors, they are promoted at the same rate as men (Forget a Mentor) Find a Sponsor, Sylvia Ann Hewitt, Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, 2013).  In the Harvard Business Review article “Why men still get more promotions than women”, Herminia Ibarra and her colleagues suggest that women are over-mentored and under-sponsored.  In interviews with 40 high-potential men and women, the women confirmed that they gained valuable career advice from their mentors; they explored their preferred styles of operating and what they needed to do to get promoted.  The men on the other hand, talked about how they planned their next moves, how they could take charge in new roles and how their mentor could advocate for them publicly – more of a sponsor’s role.

For these reasons, it is vital to understand the differences between mentoring and sponsorship.  While sponsorship can open doors for high potentials women and BME professionals, simply providing someone with a sponsor does not guarantee career success.

As sponsorship is so critical to making it into leadership positions, it is very important to get it right and this will be explored in my next article “Implementing effective sponsorship programmes?”

Written by Jo Larbie