Mentorship and sponsorship are powerful tools for personal success and building stronger workforces. Although they are related to one another and share some similarities, they are not, as people sometimes assume, the same thing. In reality, sponsorship can grow from a productive mentor-mentee relationship.
What is mentorship?
In a work setting, mentorship is a relationship between someone sharing knowledge and providing guidance (the mentor) and someone learning from that person’s experience and example (the mentee).
Most of the time, the mentor is older and the mentee is younger, perhaps new to the workforce, but mentorship can exist and thrive in any situation where a new employee is learning from a more experienced one. Contrary to what one might assume, a mentor does not have to be somebody in management. In fact, people who aren’t in management can derive great satisfaction and sense of contribution from mentoring someone else.
Mentorship can start with something as simple as an informational coffee and can take various forms from there. It could just be a one-time meeting, but the most valuable mentorships grow over time as evolving peer-to-peer relationships. While mentorship is usually between just two people, group mentorship is an approach businesses sometimes take as well. It can occur in person or online.
What is sponsorship?
The image of sponsorship that probably first comes to mind is that of a professional athlete being sponsored by a business, like a top soccer player receiving a lot of her gear from a company that makes it. In turn, she promotes that company’s brand by wearing and using the gear.
That’s not the kind of sponsorship we’re talking about in this context. Here, sponsorship stems from a strong and successful mentorship.
Think of it as phase two of mentorship. Once the mentor and mentee have worked together for a while, usually at least a few months, the mentor may see evidence of growth and self-accountability in the mentee. At that point, the mentor can become an actual advocate for their mentee. In this capacity, the mentor is now a sponsor and the mentee is a protégé.
Now the sponsor is doing more than just sharing experience and knowledge. Because the sponsor has come to feel personally invested in the advancement of the protégé, the sponsor expands that person’s visibility within the organization, models self-advancing behavior, and directly involves the protégé in experiences that will provide opportunities for career advancement. For instance, a sponsor may put their protégé’s name on the table for a promotion, or have the power to advocate for their work when they are not in the room (or invited to the “important” meeting themselves).
The sponsor is putting their reputation and professional branding behind the protégé, meaning there’s typically more risk to being a sponsor. This is why sponsorship is more likely to develop from the basis of an effective mentorship. In short, the mentorship develops the trust and confidence requisite for sponsorship to occur.
Why do you need both?
One takeaway so far is that mentorship is a critical step towards establishing a sponsorship. While not all mentorships will develop into sponsorships, but that doesn’t mean mentorship doesn’t have other benefits. Here are some of them:
- People learn more about each other, which strengthens the workforce overall, as co-workers begin to see each other as unique individuals and not just fellow workers who exist to check off a list of tasks to complete.
- The mentee has extra support in reaching their goals. They can work together with their mentor in a structured setting to do so.
- Mentees attain the professional skills they will need to advance in their careers.
- Mentorship allows those an opportunity to form meaningful relationships and feel included as a valuable part of a company and its culture. This is especially the case with hybrid and remote workers now making up a larger share of the workforce and with younger workers who may have no prior experience as a part of it.
- Mentors can find fulfillment in passing on knowledge and having a leadership role even if their positions are not in management.
Mentorship, then, is valuable purely for its own sake.
Sponsorship, as we’ve seen, supports mentorship and builds on it. Mentorship provides the concrete details and other experiences that the sponsor can use to advocate for their protégé.
Working at a company with a mentorship program or seeking out a mentor at work, then, is a proven way to invest in your growth as an employee just entering the workforce, or even just a new role. If you invest enough time and effort into the relationship, you may just end up with a sponsor as well, and what could be better than both?