Professional Development Relationships that Grow with Your Career, and Why You Need Both
At En Point, we don’t believe in a ‘one size fits all’ approach to mentorship and sponsorship.
At the core, mentorship and sponsorship are relationships, making them highly dynamic professional development tools. Both of these tools are and can be used at different points in your career.
Careers are ever evolving and these types of relationships will evolve with the progression of your career. Different skills, connections, and development are needed; mentors and sponsor relationships will likely reflect our specific needs at the time, and are much more impactful with a specific need or goal in mind.
Given these relationships have the most impact when considering our unique goals and work environments in their design, we explore a few different applications of mentorship and sponsorship below. First, let’s define each type of relationship and how they function as a professional development tool.
There are many definitions of mentorship, but at the heart of most you’ll find a common theme and that’s what we pose here. The mentor/mentee relationship is defined by a more experienced or more knowledgeable person, in a specific area, industry or topic, who is providing guidance, advice, and support to a less experienced person in that specific area, industry, or topic.
One of the misconceptions of mentorship is that the mentee is always a younger person or group. It is really about creating a connection within a specific area of interest, line of business, set of skills or a particular stage in career. An example might be a previously retired accountant now turned budding entrepreneur looking to connect and be mentored by a seasoned entrepreneur; age is not a defining factor or requirement in this connection.
A mentor is someone who might help you work through challenges or help you to make a decision, using personalized conversation, sharing experiences, and dedicated time building a relationship. A mentor can help you advance your career goals by tapping into someone who has more knowledge, experience, and/or lived perspective of that particular area than you possess yourself.
The critical difference in a sponsorship relationship versus mentorship, is the dynamic of a position of influence, or authority. A person can only truly be a sponsor if they are able to create an opportunity for you that you otherwise would not be able to access on your own. The defining and key difference of sponsorship is that your sponsor not only has more experience than you in a certain area, but also has the ability to bring you “up” alongside them.
Sponsors might talk about you to senior members of your work environment, potential employers or nominate you for projects, boards, or contracts. Sponsors help you to navigate your career advancement in a different way, strategizing stretch assignments, key introductions, and vertical moves. This will look different if your sponsor is in the same organization as you, or if they are outside of your organization or industry.
Where the Lines Blur
Some of the general misconceptions of a sponsor and key differences between a mentor and sponsor are a bit more complicated. While a sponsor can certainly play the role of a guide, and have a personal connection with their protege’s goals, when the connection is based in a shared working environment, professional proximity is an influencing factor.
In an ideal world, a mentor is completely objective and is 100% focused on the mentee’s goals and unique path. In sponsorship relationships that are within the same organization, objectivity is more difficult as the sponsor does have a personal stake in the results;
When a sponsor is advocating for someone in the same organization — talking to other senior leaders, peers and colleagues and making room for their protege to advance in the organization — results matter. If the protege does not follow through, it will not reflect well on the sponsor, ultimately there is more inherent personal risk involved than in a mentorship relationship;
If it comes up that the real next step and opportunity for the protégé is outside of the organization, it can be harder for a sponsor in an organization to navigate.
Another very important factor to consider is the skillset, desires, motivations of a mentor or sponsor. Depending on your goals for engaging in either kind of relationship, you may find a sponsor who has the right authority and positional influence to help you achieve your goals, but lacks the desire or skill to help you navigate internal challenges. You may need both a mentor to help work through your internal challenges (keeping your sponsor in the loop of course), and a sponsor to help you put new learnings into practice in your workplace.
Considering these circumstances, it can sometimes be difficult for one person to be both sponsor and mentor, often the two merge when the connection is made outside the organization.
Putting Sponsorship and Mentorship into Practice
Successful mentor or sponsor relationships are defined by different characteristics as outlined above, and both are useful at different stages in your career. Often you will have several of each over your life and career span, sometimes you will have a person or group that becomes both at the same time.
Louise Pentland, Senior Vice President, General Counsel, and Company Secretary at PayPal, shares, “It’s not often talked about, but mentors don’t have to last forever. I’ve had five or six in the past 20 years, and each one supported me through a different phase of my career.”
A successful mentorship sees a mentor providing guidance and practicing curiosity by asking questions while not judging the mentees’ answers. It is critical that they provide a safe space to talk openly and honestly with no goal other than what the mentor/mentee have defined as important. Mentorship may or may not include introductions to a mentor’s/mentee’s network; it depends on the goals, skills, and ability of the pair.
Successful sponsorship looks like an experienced person with influence and ability to make room for you at the “leadership table”. In doing so they are actively speaking about you when you are not there, using messages you’ve crafted together. This also requires taking the relationship beyond the pair, by introducing the protege to people and opportunities (As above, this could be true for mentorship as well if it aligns with the relationship goals and the mentor’s skills and network). When considering the follow through on their agreed upon goals, which may or may not include any type of guidance or deeper sharing, the results can seem more “immediate” and tangible.
How Mentorship and Sponsorship work in different Workspaces
In small organizations..
Mentorship and sponsorship take a different shape when you are in a smaller organization, a startup or a non-profit. For example, let’s say you are in a six person organization. There is the CEO, the Executive Director, your role as Manager, and three employees. You know you have two roles you can move into regarding leadership progression and diversifying your portfolio of responsibility. If the two leadership positions are not being vacated anytime soon, it doesn’t mean that those two individuals can’t act as your sponsor or mentor.
Sponsorship could include those senior leaders advocating for you with the board of directors, or supporting you to take over their role eventually. They might provide ‘stretch’ opportunities in your current role to develop new skills or enhance skills critical to succession, even promote you outside of the organization. You co-create a path for your career together, by identifying goals, asking for and then being provided opportunities for growth, and creating a feedback loop that ensures that you can recover quickly from “failures”.
Mentorship in a small organization could look much the same, pending personalities and personal ‘agendas’ of your leadership team, or vastly different if you look outside the organization for a mentor. If your company mentor views your growth as their success, there is no reason the picture we painted above can’t work.
However, if either leader isn’t open to advancing a succession agenda, you can likely still find ways to leverage your time and the relationship to gain feedback to help you grow. The caveat here is that in a setting where your “boss” is acting as a mentor, it’s best to understand their motivations for support. If you are in an environment where you are unsure of your leadership team’s motivations or you are intentionally seeking diverse experiences, seeking a mentor outside of your organization could be a better strategy for you.
As an entrepreneur..
Entrepreneurship is a different experience as you may be working for yourself or act as the “boss”. Given the loneliness that can accompany entrepreneurship, mentorship is a critical support and personal growth tool. Instilling (and continually bolstering) confidence, supporting skill development (through experience sharing and perspective), and providing an unbiased support system are critical for entrepreneurs. A mentor can help an entrepreneur push through the tough times, build resilience and really act as a confidant in the trenches of the good, the bad and the ugly.
As an entrepreneur, it is incredibly valuable to have someone who can open doors for you. A sponsor can help you access funding, opportunities for game changing contracts, conversations with experts who otherwise you would not have access too, even board positions that help to build influence and credibility in your industry. A sponsor could be someone who is an advisor, on your board, investor, or a client; of course each of those has implications regarding how you manage the relationship. Similar to when sponsorship comes from within the organization, agendas need to be understood to avoid assumptions and conflict.
In medium to large organizations..
This is perhaps where the difference between mentorship and sponsorship can seem the smallest and yet the most impactful at the same time. The outcomes we’ve shared in the first two scenarios hold true in larger organizations, however one must take great care to thoroughly consider the environment and culture of the organization to understand and weigh pros/cons of mentorship and sponsorship.
To get you started, here is a list from Monster of a few major organizations who have developed long standing mentorship programs, 9 companies with solid mentorship programs.
When searching for your next career move, take the time to review their practices around mentorship and sponsorship. Do they have a formal program? Do they offer regular education and training opportunities? Often large companies have budgets designated specifically to employee engagement, check out how the organizations you’re interested in are using them and where mentorship or sponsorship fit, if at all.
In Every Situation
A mentor may or may not have the kinds of connections or influence you need, and just the same a sponsor may not have time or capacity to act as a true mentor. There is immeasurable value linked to both of these types of relationships, both serving different purposes and ultimately when the two work alongside each other, significant results can be achieved.
Louise Pentland explains it in her Forbes Leadership Council piece, “what I have learned from being a mentor myself is that mentorship is a two-way street. You give and you take, and you have to recognize what you want out of the relationship. Mentors and sponsors serve different purposes, but their end goal is the same: to support you in achieving your goals.”
For more ways mentorship can have an impact on your career read our 3 Reasons Why Mentorship matters in your career or join our newsletter for for monthly updates and new reports on the power of mentorship and sponsorship!