Sponsors vs. Mentors: What’s the Difference?


For women looking to open the c-suite door, sponsors may hold the key.

The topic of sponsors versus mentors and how they impact women in the workplace heated up in 2013 when a Manhattan-based female economist launched a two-year study on the topic, followed by a book titled “Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor.”

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, President and CEO of the think tank Center for Talent Innovation, studied 12,000 men and women in white collar jobs across Britian and the United States and found that sponsorship beat mentorship when it comes to career progression – especially for women struggling to climb higher than middle management.

According to Hewlett's research:

  • When it came to asking for a pay raise, the majority of men (67%) and women (70%) resisted confronting their boss. However, with the backing of a sponsor at work, nearly half of men and 38 percent of women made the request
  • When it came to getting assigned to a high-visibility team or stretch assignment, some 43 percent of male employees and 36 percent of females approached their manager and made the request. With a sponsor, however, the numbers rose to 56 percent and 44 percent, respectively.

Hewlett: “You Need Someone With Power to Lean in With You”


Sylvia Ann Hewlett

In a New York Times op-ed article, Hewlett explained the difference between sponsors and mentors this way: “Mentors act as a sounding board or a shoulder to cry on, offering advice as needed and support and guidance as requested; they expect very little in return. Sponsors, in contrast, are much more vested in their protégés, offering guidance and critical feedback because they believe in them.”

Without a sponsor, Hewlett warned, women workers risk getting stuck in the “that sticky middle slice of management where so many driven and talented women languish.”

The sponsorship relationship has much more at stake for both parties. It’s an investment that must be earned, according to Hewlett. In the New York Times article, some high-powered female executives weighed in on the give-and-take of sponsorships:

  • “Sponsorship only works when it’s a two-way street. It can’t be just ‘Gimme, gimme, gimme — I need help, I need advice.’ You must demonstrate that you’ll deliver outstanding performance — you’ve got to consistently make your boss look good.” --Patricia Fili-Krushel, chairwoman of the news group at NBCUniversal.
  • “Trust is at the heart of this relationship. When I put my faith in up-and-coming talent and become their sponsor, I need to know I can totally depend on them — because they are, after all, walking around with my brand on. -- Kerrie Peraino, global head of talent at American Express.

Speak Up About Your Ambitions

In order for women to obtain sponsors in the workplace, they must first speak out.

According to an article from Women’s Agenda titled, How a sponsor can propel a woman’s career, women looking to advance need to, “speak up about their ambitions,” but for women who find it difficult throwing their hat into the ring, this idea of openly revealing their career goals might seem daunting as they “prefer to put their heads down, work harder and smarter than everyone else and wait for recognition to follow.”

Arianna Huffington seeks to further explain why women tend to lean out stating, “We are afraid of being too assertive, we are afraid of not being good enough, and we live with an all-purpose anxiety that has led many of us into lives of workaholism.”

That’s where the power of sponsorship comes in -- a good sponsor can spot talent and potential, often times before the sponsored sees these qualities in themselves.

Seek Out the Power Players

Hewlett cautions that women need to be selective when choosing sponsors. In a Harvard Business Review article, she writes, “Many high-potential women make the mistake of focusing on role models rather than powerfully positioned sponsors.”

According to Hewlett, good sponsors should offer:

  • High-level contacts they can introduce you to
  • Stretch assignments that will advance your career
  • A broad perspective when they give critical feedback

Be Sure to Deliver

While a valuable resource, sponsors aren’t to be taken lightly. Remember that these executives are putting their name on the line to back your career goals and ambitions. When they give you an opportunity to shine and prove your value, you need to deliver for the sake of your own career and your sponsor’s personal and professional reputation.

Bottom line: Don’t let your sponsor -- or yourself -- down.

By: WPB Expert / On: February 24, 2014 /

In: Leadership, Career Progression, Career Advice, Advice