Do You Need a Sponsor or a Mentor?

When I was a young PR manager working in New York in the late nineties, I desperately wanted to land an overseas assignment.  I tried to get on large, international client accounts and made sure I was visible to senior management.

And as hard as I worked to show my value, still nothing.

It wasn’t until I got the support of a managing director whose team I worked on during a client crisis, that everything came together.

Over lunch one day he asked me about my career aspirations and I shared my desire to work in Asia.

Over the course of the next year  he made sure I was assigned to the right client accounts and introduced to key senior leaders. When an opening eventually came up in the Shanghai office, he recommended me for it and I was offered the job.

Without the sponsorship of that managing director, my dream of an international assignment would have remained just that.

Years later, when I was ready to earn my MBA, it was an Executive Vice-President who took me under her wing and brokered an arrangement for me to have my degree paid for by my employer despite opposition from another executive who didn’t believe in tuition support for senior leaders.

Sponsorship is crucial to career advancement and yet women especially tend to be under-sponsored and over-mentored in their careers.

The Harvard Business Review article, “The Relationship You Need to Get Right” succinctly lays out the role of the sponsor as follows in a brief checklist:

  • Advocate for your next promotion
  • Call in favors for you
  • Expand your perception of what you can do
  • Make connections to senior leaders
  • Advise you on executive presence

The co-authors go on to write:

“…The best sponsors, we found, go beyond mentoring. They offer not just guidance but also advocacy, not just vision but also the tactical means of realizing it. They place bets on outstanding junior colleagues and call in favors for them…We repeatedly heard CEOs and top managers say that they wouldn’t be where they are without strong sponsors and loyal protégés…Ensuring that you have sponsors is a lifelong project no matter what your position…”

I know my career has greatly benefited from the sponsors who have advocated and helped position me throughout my career.

I’ve also been helped by many, many mentors who have given me advice from negotiating a salary for a new job to offering strategies for dealing with a difficult colleague.

Don’t get me wrong, mentorship is valuable.

Mentors offer great advice and can act as a sounding board when you are trying to figure out tough problems or are just looking for an alternative perspective.

They can offer moral support and wisdom from their own experience and careers.

But mentors are not enough to advance your career.

If you want to break into the “big league” you need someone who is willing to put him or herself on the line for you.

You need a person who will personally vouch for  you and (in essence) put their reputation on the line to catapult you to the front of the line.

In her New York Times article “Mentors Are Good. Sponsors Are Better.” Sylvia Ann Hewlitt writes:

To get ahead, women need to acquire a sponsor — a powerfully positioned champion — to help them escape the “marzipan layer,” that sticky middle slice of management where so many driven and talented women languish…Our two-year study, which sampled some 12,000 men and women in white-collar occupations across the United States and Britain, shows how sponsorship — unlike mentorship, its weaker cousin — makes a measurable difference in career progress….

I’ve seen this bear out not only in my own career but in the careers of the women I coach.

Whenever I meet a young woman who says she wants to advance in her career – or who complains she’s not moving fast enough, the first question I ask is, “Do you have a sponsor?”

A final word about sponsorship. It’s a two-way street. If you are lucky enough to find someone who will take you under their wing as a sponsor, know you are expected to provide something in return as their protégée.

What exactly?

Loyalty and outstanding performance to start. But don’t be surprised if months or even years later, your sponsor calls on you for your support.

Be there for them because they were there for you.

What do you think? Have you benefited from a sponsor or mentor? Wish you had? Let me know about your experience in the comments.

I’m listening.



Showing 2 comments
  • RachelB

    Wow – I wish I had. Until recently I did have a boss that was definitely a sponsor, though I had never thought of it in those terms. I knew that she would always advocate for me and that was a quality that I really admired in her.

    • Boss Mom

      Rachel, good for you! You are lucky that you had a boss who was a sponsor for you. It made such a big difference for me. I only wish that had “got it” earlier in my career. Now that I’m pretty senior in my organization, I try to pay it forward.

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