We’ve all heard about the importance of mentorship, particularly for employees early in their careers and from underrepresented communities. Many organizations have formalized mentorships programs, pairing junior employees with mid-level or senior counterparts to gain a better understanding of their roles and professional journey.

What you’ve probably heard less about is sponsorship. Mentorship focuses on how a mentor can help the mentee directly in ways such as guidance, advice, feedback on skills and coaching. Sponsorship takes that interpersonal support for a mentee and makes it externally facing. Sponsors use their social capital, influence, and connections to advocate for their protégé. Essentially, mentors talk to you and sponsors talk about you.

On the surface, the nuances that differentiate sponsorship and mentorship may seem trivial. But in nearly every industry, who you know is often just as important – if not more important – than what you know, and a sponsor’s commitment to speaking about you in rooms where you aren’t present can transform the trajectory of your career.

Sponsorship vs. Mentorship: A Seat at the Table

Let me be clear: mentorship is still necessary and significant for the development of employees. But even as we grow from the lessons our mentors share, we still need someone – it could be your mentor or someone else you trust – to help open doors in a way that goes beyond one-on-one coaching and support.

This quote from Carla Harris, Sr. Client Advisor at Morgan Stanley, perfectly illustrates the difference a sponsor can make.

“Nobody makes it alone. And it doesn’t matter how smart you are or how hard you work, somebody will have to carry your paper into the room because every major decision about your career from your promotion, to your compensation, to your assignments are made in a room behind closed doors where you are not present.”

For Carla, this meant finding someone with a seat at the table who knew her work when she was being considered for a promotion and asking them directly to advocate for her. They said yes, and it’s not hard to see how that sponsorship contributed to her long-term success.

Sponsorship Creates New Connections & Opportunities

So, what does this have to do with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) efforts?

It is human nature to be drawn to those who are similar to us. Thus, it is not surprising that this phenomenon shows up in who we choose as mentors and sponsors and vice versa. According to a 2019 study by Coqual, 71% of sponsors reported their protégé being the same race and gender as them. If the data shows us that top leadership in many companies lacks diversity and research also shows many of us choose those who are similar to us to forge mentorship and sponsorship relationships, it is not hard to see how we hamper our DE&I efforts by failing to ensure that sponsorship is equitable throughout our organizations.

To avoid falling into this pattern, we need to work against human nature and nurture our awareness instead. Start by considering the following questions:

Become or Find a Sponsor

Mentorship prepares us to advocate for ourselves, but there comes a time in everyone’s career when they need a sponsor to speak up for them and change the trajectory of their career. You might need that person, or you might be able to be that person for someone else. Sponsorship is the opportunity to be aware of your influence and how you can leverage it to invest in the success of your peers and colleagues.

January is National Mentoring Month, so my challenge to you is this – continue to advocate for robust mentoring programs in your workplace but take the next step and spread the word about sponsorship as a critical tool for growth and engagement at your organization.

If you want to chat about this or another DE&I topic, reach out today and let’s get started!