Sponsorship vs. Mentorship: 3 Key Differences Between Sponsors and Mentors

Sam Cook


Sponsorship vs. Mentorship: 3 Key Differences Between Sponsors and Mentors

Most of your employees have a strong desire to get ahead in their careers. They’ll work hard to get noticed, but they may not always succeed, even if you have mentoring programs in place. The reason for this is that as you compare sponsorship vs. mentorship, you’ll find that they’re not the same thing. Creating mentoring programs has become an essential strategy for successful employee engagement, growth, and retention, but talent and development leaders shouldn’t assume it will instantly result in much-needed sponsorship opportunities for mentees. 

Sponsorship vs Mentorship: What’s the Difference?

There’s often some overlap between mentorship and sponsorship, which is understandable. A well-structured mentorship program and high-impact mentoring relationships between mentors and mentees quite often naturally lead to sponsorship opportunities. Many (but certainly not all) mentor/mentee relationships are formed between lower-level team members and leaders within the organization. 

The stronger the mentor/mentee pairing, the more likely it is that the relationship will lead to a sponsorship opportunity. Consequently, mentoring programs that use mentoring software with SMART matching algorithms ultimately create better pairs versus the traditional, manual approach. 

With that in mind, here are some differences that define the primary differences between mentorship and sponsorship. 

1. Job Level

The biggest difference between mentors and sponsors is their job level. Mentors can be someone at any level within your organization and at times, can be at any tenure level, as well. For example, if you’re operating an onboarding program, you might decide to pair your new hires with team members at the same level, but with different tenure. 

On the opposite end, a sponsor must always be someone in a higher position within the organization. The purpose of a sponsor is to advocate for career progression opportunities for the sponsored individual. That’s exceptionally difficult to pull off unless the sponsor is someone who has respect and influence within the organization within a leadership position. 

2. Level of Advocacy

When considering whether your company needs to focus on mentorship vs. sponsorship (or even coaching vs sponsorship) it’s worth mentioning that a sponsor maintains the incredibly important role of advocating for an employee’s success within your company or organization. 

That’s something an individual who is also a mentor can do, but it’s more uniquely the and specifically the job of a sponsor. 

sponsorship vs. mentorship meeting

For example, consider someone who is working in a sales position at your company but wants to be promoted into management. In this scenario, the sponsor would be the one to talk with their colleagues within the sales management team about their sponsored individual’s professional goals and even tell them why it would be the perfect fit. 

Note that the average time between entry and promotion is about 3 years. Workers who aren’t getting promoted to a new, higher position by then may start getting antsy. Sponsors absolutely need to exist to help workers move up in a more timely manner, and that depends on using their level of influence to make it happen. 

3. Skill Development

Although sponsors are fully capable of helping mentees develop, that’s not their purpose. Skills-based development falls directly within the purview of a mentor. 

Take the case of someone trying to be promoted to a management position. Rather than campaigning for their promotion, a mentor may listen to their perspective, consider how they can improve their case for a promotion, and guide them on how to further their skills. They may also provide advice about how they can go about campaigning for themselves. 

Group mentoring at work

In that scenario, a sponsor might then advocate on their behalf independently or separately as that individual is being considered for the position. 

As noted earlier, someone who is in a mentor role can do this type of advocacy, and many do. But the mentor role does not require it and it should not be something mentees automatically expect out of their mentor. 

What Makes a Sponsorship Successful?

Sponsorships often grow out of mentorships. When a relationship has been established between a mentor and mentee, the mentor may choose to start going to bat for their mentee and help them start building their branding. That’s when the relationship becomes sponsorship.

That doesn’t come without some personal risk to the mentor. Sponsors put their personal reputation on the line to advocate on behalf of someone less tenured or within a lower-level position. That means mentees should do everything in their power to live up to that advocacy. 

mentoring pair mentorship vs. sponsorship

Sponsorships also work best when the sponsor has had the opportunity to work closely with the individual they’re sponsoring. Mentoring relationships often produce this level of intimate knowledge of another person’s work. 

Since a sponsor is helping more directly with a sponsee’s branding and image while advocating for them, it’s best that they:

  • Have experience in their sponsee’s field to provide more hands-on guidance, and
  • Have connections within their organization with the right people to advocate for their sponsee

These two factors mean that reaching out across the organization to a completely different field won’t always be the best place to look for a sponsor. 

However, if an employee is hoping to move laterally within the organization into different functions, having a sponsor out of their own function can be exceptionally helpful. Organizations that create open mentoring programs tend to make this kind of movement much easier to accomplish as workers can form mentoring relationships and then find sponsors with leaders in different functional areas. 

What Makes a Mentoring Relationship Successful? 

The value of good mentoring relationships is both incalculable and very quantifiable at the same time. Not only do they produce emotional satisfaction for everyone involved, but successfully-run mentoring programs and mentoring relationships can increase retention by as much as 50% due to increased employee satisfaction.   

Over 84% of Fortune 500 companies now have mentoring programs in place, with many offering mentoring as a go-to engagement method for employees on day 1. The secret that makes these programs work so well and at the scale of enterprise businesses is mentoring software. From launching programs to matching to measuring success, mentoring software produces far better results than manually-run programs and leads more organically to career-critical sponsorships.

You can’t force sponsorships, but you can create the fertile ground for such sponsorship to occur. 

Contact MentorcliQ today to learn how to automate the matching process with SMART matching tools, and how to implement the type of mentoring programs that make sponsorship a natural progression for all of your participants. 

Sam Cook

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