In the sphere of HR and People Ops, the terms mentorship and sponsorship often get used interchangeably. Or they’re siloed into warring factions of Mentor vs. Sponsor. Mentorship was ranked by LinkedIn as the primary focus area for L&D in its 2023 Workplace Learning Report. But sponsorship is gaining traction, especially when partnered with DEI initiatives.
But when it comes to finding advocates and advisers for your employees, it shouldn’t be an either/or situation.
However, they are not the same thing. Each relationship has its purpose and process. While mentoring and sponsoring are both career-advancing tools, relying exclusively on just one hinders employee engagement and growth. Let’s talk about why you need both.
What's the difference between mentorship and sponsorship?
The key difference between mentorship and sponsorship is the relationship between the two parties. In both cases, a junior team member is paired up with a more senior one. While mentors are usually managers or higher-ups, they don’t necessarily have to be at the company’s top level. A sponsor, on the other hand, is usually at the executive level in an organization.
Mentorships provide guidance
Mentorship is a relationship where an older or more experienced employee helps guide and shape another employee with less experience. Mentors offer career advice and serve as a sounding board for mentees. They can guide career decisions, talk through challenges, train their mentee in new skills, help map out a career path, or be a role model.
While mentorships have traditionally been a relationship between two individuals, other forms of mentoring can have the same benefits as a traditional mentoring connection. For instance, group mentoring may include one or more mentors and multiple mentees. And team mentoring could be part of an employee resource group (ERG).
Sponsorships open doors
Sponsorship, in comparison, is a relationship between a protégé and a person who has the authority or influence to help someone with career development or advancement. A sponsor is not only more experienced than the sponsee, but they can open up opportunities for them within the company or in a particular field.
Sponsorship programs may include mentorship as well, but a sponsor primarily serves as your champion and takes an active role in an employee’s professional development and career advancement. For example, a sponsor may recommend their protégé to senior leadership or nominate them for awards or projects.
Both relationships help employees grow
Mentorship and sponsorship programs are both based on connections that focus on an employee’s career success. In each instance, an employee benefits from a senior employee’s knowledge and expertise. Meanwhile, the company also benefits, thanks to shared internal knowledge and lower employee churn.
Both mentors and sponsors:
- Help advance an employee’s career and skills.
- Support and encourage their protégés to do their best work.
A good mentor may introduce a mentee to a sponsor who has the authority and influence to move their career up to the next level. And a sponsor may even choose to mentor a team member while also advocating for them.
Is it better to have a mentor or sponsor?
Both mentors and sponsors can have a powerful impact on the trajectory of someone’s career, especially in the early stages. Mentors help guide junior team members, while sponsors champion them. But mentoring expert Jennifer Petrela says you should offer both.
“We replicate the systems that we’re in, unless we make a deliberate effort to change those systems,” she said. “Which is an argument for people who have more power to help people who have less — or to mentor them and to sponsor them — to give them opportunities and to vouch for them.”
Check out Together’s interview with Petrela about how mentorship and sponsorship create powerful opportunities for women.
Mentors show you the way
Mentors can serve in many capacities, such as an onboarding buddy or career coach. In many cases, the mentee drives the length and scope of the mentor-mentee relationship.
Mentorship can be informal or part of an established mentorship program.
A junior employee might be more comfortable with a mentorship because they can choose their mentor. Yale Insights reports that 82 percent of women and 84 percent of men found their mentors informally by identifying a potential mentor and reaching out to see if that individual is receptive to the idea.
This works to the mentee’s advantage, especially if they have a team member they admire or a specific role in mind.
Sponsors lift you up
As a champion for the employee, a sponsor has a direct impact on the employee’s career growth. And since sponsorship is initiated by the sponsor, this may help employees who don’t have built-in mentors because of their socioeconomic background, gender or race.
The nature of sponsorship shows that the senior leader wants to help another employee move up in their career. This can open up pathways to advancement that many employees, particularly those from marginalized backgrounds, may miss out on.
Sponsors also benefit from this relationship. They may be looking for someone to further the revenue and growth of the company or strengthen a particular team. They may even choose to sponsor someone to serve as their replacement. Because of this, the performance of the protégé reflects on the sponsor.
The role of a Mentor
Mentorships involve more self-reflection than sponsorships. Mentees define their career goals and work to achieve them with the help, support, advice, and encouragement of a mentor. During a mentorship, a mentee will start to see their strengths and weaknesses and create a plan to see positive change in their career.
Mentorships have several benefits to employees, such as:
- Skills development
- Goal setting
- Professional networking
- Relationship building
- Satisfaction of helping others
Mentorships are also good for the company — 84% of Fortune 500 companies have mentorship programs. Benefits include:
- Higher employee engagement
- Reduced turnover — employees in mentorships have a 50% higher retention rate
Formalized mentorship programs help to reap these rewards. Check out Together’s best practices guide to build a successful workplace mentoring program.
The role of a Sponsor
A sponsor identifies high performers inside the company and helps promote them.
Sponsors will seek out opportunities for the employees they are advocating for. They may even create roles for them. And when it comes to networking, a sponsor will make important connections with key players in the company, industry or geographic location.
Benefits of workplace sponsorship for employees include:
- Faster advancement to higher career levels
- Better representation
- More opportunities for advancement
For companies, sponsorship can:
- Improve employee morale
- Lead to greater business growth
- Increase employee retention
- Make succession planning easier
Sponsorships can be particularly beneficial for those who struggle to rise through the ranks of an organization. But our biases may get in the way. Sponsors tend to suffer from “mini-me syndrome,” according to diversity research group Coqual (formerly CTI).
Their research revealed that 71% of mentees were the same race and gender as their executive mentors. That gives women of color very few opportunities to find a mentor — just 4% of executives match up.
Having someone actively promoting you within your company means you’re more likely to get noticed and be able to advance. According to Payscale, employees with a sponsor are paid a “sponsorship premium” and make up to 11.6 percent more than their unsponsored colleagues.
The importance of mentorship And sponsorship in the workplace
There is no need for an either-or approach when it comes to mentorship and sponsorship in the workplace. Instead, both types of support can be beneficial at different times in an employee’s career.
The type of relationship — mentorship or sponsorship — isn’t nearly as important as the context, purpose, and duration of the relationship. Giving your employees more opportunities to learn from senior employees will give them the advancement and fulfillment they crave. Over time, mentorship and sponsorship programs will improve employee engagement and reduce churn. You’ll also build a deep talent pool and retain valuable company knowledge.