Mentorships and Sponsorships

Last Friday, I spoke on a panel at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women on the topic of Mentorships and Sponsorships. The topic garnered quite a bit of interest from the audience and so I thought it was worthwhile to share a summary of the discussion as well as some insights offered by the panelists, who were executives from across various industries.

What is the difference between mentorship and sponsorship?

Mentors are individuals who will provide you with advice and guidance in an effort to facilitate your career advancement. The idea is that mentors, through their own experiences have the insight needed to help you navigate career challenges that you may be facing.  

Sponsors are individuals who advocate on your behalf. They are usually senior people within your organization that are willing to put their own professional capital on the line for you. They are willing to do so because you have done a good job for them and they feel as sense of reciprocity. When talent is discussed at the management table they will represent you and showcase your capabilities to ensure you are considered for arising opportunities.

Should you have both a mentor and a sponsor?

Yes, if you can get both. I have had multiple mentors at the same time in my career and there is really no limit to how many mentors you could or should have. Sponsors are more difficult to obtain because they put their own reputation on the line to speak on your behalf and not everyone is willing to do that. If you can get a sponsor, the difference it can make to your career is material. Sponsors are usually people of influence that will recommend you for a job and tout your accomplishments. Sponsorships depend upon the culture of your organization and they usually form organically - although I have asked people if they would be my sponsor in certain situations.

How do you find a mentor?

You never know where you will find a mentor. Just like all human relationships, the most effective mentor-mentee relationships are ones that form organically because of some common interests. I personally have never found organized mentor programs to work to any degree of effectiveness. Those relationships feel contrived and ultimately they become a corporate “check the box”exercise. 

You never know where you will meet a mentor. One of the panelists told a story about how one day while commuting into the city, her bus broke down and she spent several hours speaking with the gentlemen who sat next to her. He became her mentor and continues to mentor her to this day. What I found interesting was that she never spoke to this gentleman before that day because anyone who commutes from suburbia knows that the morning commute is quiet time.

I too have found mentors on my commute when I lived in New Jersey and took the ferry into the city. I have always found that the additional bond of living in the same community tends to incentivize people to help. The bonds tend to be longer lasting and stronger particularly because you continuously see each. The more you have in common the stronger the bond will be. You can have as many mentors as you like or need. I’ve had different mentors for different purposes throughout my career.

Audience question: If a mentee doesn’t follow your advice do you feel like they’re wasting your time?

I would say the answer depends on the ego and you should be mindful of this.

One of the panelists said yes. That she is so busy that if you come to her unprepared and not having followed her advice she would feel like you are wasting her time.

I have a different perspective and said no. Ultimately it is your career and you have to follow the advice that you think is best for you and that you are most comfortable with following. Sometimes a complex or high-stakes problem may require the council of several mentors and the advice you receive may be different from each one. I would then follow the advice that feels most sensible to me. If however a mentee comes to me with the same issue over and over again, not having followed my advice, then I may begin to feel like my time is being wasted.

Have you ever seen any negative effects of a mentorship?

It is important to recognize that not all advice is good advice and not everyone is good at giving advice. Learn to discern good advice from bad advice by exercising pragmatism.  

Not all mentors have your best interest at heart. Many industries are competitive and there are many people who may may not want you to succeed; they may intentionally steer you wrong. Be careful of that.

Also be weary, if you are young woman and there is a senior male mentor who is taking an unusual interest in your career, you should question their intentions. You should also be mindful of the optics - spending an inordinate amount of time with your senior mentor may ignite rumors around the office. Keep in mind that most people in corporate America aren’t in their roles for altruistic purposes and nobody goes so far on a limb to help anyone’s career. And if they do, you should be weary of their intentions – apologies for my cynicism.