“I’ll mentor many people, but I’ll only ‘sponsor’ a few.”
These words came from a high-level executive at one of Canada’s largest financial institutions. He was a guest speaker at one of our group coaching programs. When he made the proclamation, we were exploring strategic networking and the role that mentors play in career advancement.
In that moment, the penny dropped for me as to why so many mentorship programs fail to solve tough talent issues. For years, mentorship has been positioned as the antidote to the problem of young leaders, female leaders and minority leaders lacking the informal networks that so often help people get ahead. But if mentorship was the solution, then diversity in key leadership roles would have been achieved by now. I believe that the answer to why mentorship hasn’t fully worked lies in the difference between mentorship and sponsorship.
With mentorship, personal reputation stakes are fairly low. As a mentor, you share your insights, wisdom and experiences with another person. You may or may not have the opportunity to see that individual act on those insights. If your mentee does well, then great, but if he or she falls short, it’s not like your reputation will take a hit from his or her shortcomings.
Sponsorship is different. A sponsor essentially puts his or her personal reputation behind another person and says “I believe in this person, so you should too.” It requires seeing how the individual in question performs. It’s why the executive said he would “mentor many people, but only sponsor a few.”
This is why informal networks have long been the way to gain a career edge at work. Golfing with the boss, playing hockey with the company CEO or heading out for drinks after work with the influential head of another department all provide ways for individuals to demonstrate a host of skills — from team play, to communication, to conflict resolution, to tenacity. No wonder men who have traditionally had access to these types of informal networks have had an advantage. Mentoring, on the other hand, gives a limited view of an individual’s capabilities and potential, yet too often it is the go-to approach to help accelerate key leadership talent.
So, what’s the solution? Have everyone join the company hockey team?
For savvy organizations, group mentoring is fast becoming the go-to strategy for cultivating sponsorship. In group mentoring, senior leaders work closely with three to four high-potential leaders from across their organization in group coaching sessions, which provides the opportunity for the mentees to demonstrate some of the skills informal networks reveal.
For individuals in search of a sponsor, consider asking a potential sponsor directly what you need to do to earn their sponsorship. As I tell my daughter, “You can’t get what you don’t ask for.” Sponsorship shouldn’t be left to chance. Asking for sponsorship will provide you with exceptionally helpful insights into the kinds of activities and behaviours you need to demonstrate to earn a sponsor’s backing.
Mentorship is always helpful and most successful people cite multiple mentors in their lives, but it can’t compare to the impact of a sponsor. Sponsors are the real game changers when it comes to getting ahead.