Separating Out Sponsorship and Mentoring


Various studies have demonstrated conclusively that sponsorship and mentoring are different, largely incompatible relationships [1]. Attempting to combine them leads to reduced impact in terms of both career and personal developmental outcomes for a number of reasons, including:

  • Mentees are less open and authentic, because they want the sponsor-mentor to present them to others at their best
  • There is increased expectation of reciprocal favours — for example, the sponsor-mentor may demand “political” information about the sponsee-mentee’s boss
  • The sponsee-mentee may feel disempowered by handing over responsibility for their reputation and advancement.

These problems may be exacerbated in the context of gender, where the power dynamics of the relationship may reinforce stereotypes that undermine aspirations and expectations of self-efficacy.

The basic practical guidelines for Human Resources are:

  • Have both sponsors and mentors, but make sure everyone is clear about the difference in roles and responsibilities between each and avoid combining the roles in one person. A useful distinction is: Sponsors influence your career; mentors influence your thinking and personal growth.
  • When discussing talent in a formal succession planning forum, ensure that everyone makes clear the role they are playing.
  • Do expect sponsors to give an opinion about the learner’s strengths and weaknesses; don’t expect the mentor to do so.
  • Information shared between mentor and mentee is privileged, except in very specific circumstances; in sponsoring the level of privilege is assumed to be much lower.
  • Never expect mentor and line manager to get together to discuss the mentee; however, in sponsorship, this is typically an important part of planning the sponsee’s career path.
  • Accept that mentoring may morph into sponsorship, or vice versa, but ensure that recontracting then takes place so that the roles are not blurred.
  • Get the right balance between formal and informal relationships for both mentoring and sponsorship. Too much formal sponsorship or mentoring can prevent people seeking their own networks of career support; too much informal sponsorship can lead to nepotism.
  • Measure the quality of sponsorship and mentoring, through the eyes of all the stakeholders (including line managers of the mentees and sponsees). Bring all stakeholders together from time to time to discuss how the programme is working. Monitor also the diversity of who gets a mentor or sponsor.
  • In general, formal mentoring relationships tend to last up to two years; sponsorship, because it is taking a much longer-term perspective, might last for 10 years or more. Recommended good practice is to change formal sponsors at least every five years, both to help the learner build a wider support network and to prevent the relationship becoming too cosy.
  • Consider what happens when a sponsor or mentor moves on. If the person only has one sponsor in your organization, the likelihood is relatively high that they will follow their sponsor to their new employer. If the person has a network of sponsors, this is less likely.
  • Beware of the “loyalty trap”! Sponsorship relationships can decay into fealty relationships of obligation and loyalty by the junior person to the senior. This may suit the two people concerned, at least superficially, but it drives a coach and horses through promotion on merit – undermining the whole point of having a sponsorship programme in the first place.
  • Expect sponsors to meet with sponsees up to three times a year; mentors twice as frequently.

The bottom line is that sponsorship can be a very useful tool in talent management, but it needs active oversight by HR and the leadership team.

© David Clutterbuck, 2018

[1] Bhide, V and Tootell, B (2018) Perceptions of sponsoring as a career advancement tool for women: Are they different in Europe? International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring 2018, 16 (1), DOI: 10.24384/000467

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