Maybe it’s not a mentor you really need

This year we’re having a monthly series on mentoring. Head here to read the previous posts.

I first heard about “sponsors” in a workplace context about a year ago, and since that first time I’ve seen sponsorship popping up all over, often in comparison to mentorship.

The concepts are similar–both, ultimately, are about career advancement. A mentor’s role is to educate, advise, and give feedback. But a sponsor’s role is to use their workplace capital to advocate for the junior player. A mentor can help you advance in your career. A sponsor can leapfrog you ahead.

Since I first learned about sponsorship, I’ve seen it at play all around me. As my peers move into their late twenties and early thirties, the ones who are finding really interesting work aren’t getting there through traditional job searches or by slowly rising through the ranks: they were sponsored. They built (usually organic) relationships with people of influence who spoke up on their behalf when an opportunity arose.

Success–in life, in work–depends on relationships, but not all relationships are equal. Mentors advance careers; sponsors transform them.

I’d love to hear if you have a sponsor, and how that’s played out in your life. (It goes without saying that sponsorship is not limited to the corporate world. Right?)

maybe it's not a mentor you really need

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  1. Tim says:

    When I was practicing law, there were more senior attorneys on the team I was assigned to and they all mentored me. But the most senior was also a sponsor. He went to bat for me and made opportunities within the firm happen.

    In order to become a judge, I had to rely on sponsors as well. These weren’t people who worked with me day to day, but people I knew through work or community activities who could advance my application from the in-box to the attention of those who make these decisions. It’s not quite the sponsorship model you are talking about, but it still kind of fits it I think.

    One thing I’ve found about sponsors that is different from mentors, though, is that sponsors won’t spend their time and career capital on someone whose abilities they are not confident in. It may sound crass, but it really comes down to them deciding whether you are worth their time and energy. If not, they’ll be helping someone else advance their career. (I actually had one person I approached for help advancing my judicial application tell me, “Sorry Tim, I only have so much political capital and I don’t know you well enough to spend it on you.” Ouch.)

    Good topic, Anne!


    • Anne says:

      Hey Tim, love to hear your story here. And I don’t think it sounds crass (maybe because I’m so used to things being the way they are?) but you’re so right–you have to be worth your sponsor’s time and energy. (I’ve heard that one of the major benefits to the sponsor is they get points for “spotting fresh talent” or “giving back.”)

      And that comment about “limited political capital”? Big ouch.

  2. HopefulLeigh says:

    I’m reading Lean In right now and just finished the chapter on mentors and sponsors. I don’t know that I’d heard of the concept of sponsors before but it makes sense. I didn’t see it play out much while I was a social worker, except once. While I worked for hospice, the bereavement coordinator got to know me pretty well while we collaborated on a few cases early on in my career. I approached him and our director about specializing with children and teens, so I began taking those duties on, in addition to my regular caseload. I now see the ways he mentored me during that time- his advice was invaluable! But he also sponsored me: he told me about ADEC’s certification in thanatology. While I didn’t see myself as an expert in grief and loss, he did and he championed this cause until I agreed to pursue certification. He wrote a glowing letter of recommendation, which meant so much. And he was the first person to celebrate when my application was approved and when I passed the certification test. If I someday go back to bereavement counseling, it will be due to the time and attention he gave me back then.

  3. Jillian Kay says:

    I have had a lot more sponsors than mentors. In my experience it’s always been a two way street though. I have to do something really great on a sponsor’s projects and then they’ll sponsor me. Mentorship seems different because there isn’t that give and take. To me it’s more what can I do to help you than sponsorship – (kill yourself in order to) do good work and make me look good, and I’ll make you look good at bonus time.

  4. SM says:

    I am in the academy, and my primary mentor and sponsor are the same person. After my first year in graduate school, I asked a senior faculty member–with whom I had taken two courses and shared many interests–if he needed a research assistant. I served as his junior RA for a couple of years. The senior RA very much felt his seniority and was a bit bossy, but I took his advising me on what to read, etc., as a sign that I was taken seriously and worth cultivating as a scholar. Over time that relationship tended more toward equality.

    Anyhow, from a fairly early stage, the faculty member had me writing grant proposals, sent me to workshops that gave me exposure to senior faculty from other schools, gently offered advice (knowing that I am hyper-attuned to suggestion), and presented me with many other opportunities. By way of both example and explicit instruction, he indicated what it would take to be successful in my field–hard work, risk-taking, bouncing back from failure, etc. No hand-holder, he was always willing to lend an ear but expected that most work and thought would be done independently, knowing that otherwise one was not well suited for a discipline in which most work is still single authored. For my part, I recognized early on that he respected dissent and valued initiative. After a certain point, I never hesitated to argue with him, including about his own research, or to keep him abreast of all the marvelous papers and projects I was working on.

    My sponsor-mentor has a quiet way and is not given to even indirect preemptive interference in hiring bodies’ decision-making processes, but this is also a situation in which the name goes a long way. He has stature in the discipline, and many employers interested in my application will just inquire directly for more information (after having already read what is probably a fairly strong letter of recommendation). Needless to say, I am fortunate and grateful.

  5. I loved that chapter in Lean In. Sylvia Ann Hewlett (who’s responsible for the sponsor vs. mentor language) has a new book coming out in September called “(Forget a Mentor) Find a Sponsor.” I think the key paradigm shift is that young women may be primed to think of mentors as other women. A sponsor is someone with a lot of career capital in your line of work — and more often than not at the moment, that’s going to be a guy.

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