3 key things to know about the roles of Sponsors and Mentors for Success

Most people understand the value of a mentor to their career prospects and professional success. There is some confusion, however, over the terms mentor and sponsor. Do you need both? Why is it currently a hot topic in the corporate workplace? The benefits of having one are obvious, but what about the benefits of being one? At Alexander Charles Associates we’ve drawn on our 30 years’ experience in the sector and the latest research, to bring you the answers to these three key questions for success in these relationships.

What is the difference in the roles of a mentor and a sponsor?

The confusion regarding this distinction features in a recent HBR article which explores the rising dialogue surrounding sponsorship in the corporate setting. The article cites a survey of over 3,000 U.S. professionals, which reveals that sponsors themselves don’t really understand the role nor how to do it well. As a result, many were acting more like mentors.

A mentor is a more senior professional who offers support and advice based on the benefit of their own experience. A sponsor is more than that. They are a senior leader who is an active advocate for their protégé (a junior professional whom in the sponsor’s opinion performs well and has lots of potential). The sponsor has three responsibilities: i) to have faith in their protégé and “go out on a limb” for them ii) to use their organisational capital publicly and privately to push for the protégé’s promotion iii) to provide protection for their protégé when they take on riskier assignments to stretch themselves.

This definition of the sponsor and their responsibilities is echoed by Susan Ritchie in her book Strategies For Being Visible. A sponsor is “…someone who is willing to put their reputation on the line when it comes to recommending you.” Ritchie highlights that finding a sponsor and developing the relationship takes time and advises that having more than one sponsor can be of greater benefit.

At Alexander Charles, we leverage our network regularly to bring the best fit candidates to our clients.  Many of our best placements result from personal recommendations.

How successful is sponsorship?

The HBR article shows that only 27% of those surveyed said that as sponsors they advocate for their protégé’s promotion. Even fewer (19%) reported giving ‘air cover’ protection to their protégé. Over 70% of sponsors also said that their protégés were of the same race and gender as themselves. Unconscious biases drive us to seek out individuals like ourselves therefore this result is not surprising. It does however mean that diverse talent is being kept out and the best way to address that is to prioritise differences (e.g. race, culture, gender, religion) when selecting a protégé.

What are the benefits to success of being a sponsor or mentor?

The survey revealed that sponsors were more likely to be satisfied with success in their own performance at work compared to non-sponsors. This is to be expected because those supporting a team of protégés can be more effective and efficient so are more easily noticed by senior leaders.

Another study showed that mentors experienced lower levels of anxiety and felt their job was more meaningful than non-mentors. The mentoring experienced offered an opportunity for mentees to relay their anxieties and concerns, many of which were also shared by the mentor; and that allowed for the sharing of different coping mechanisms.

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