Do You Have Mentors or Sponsors?


Whether you’re a man or a woman, you’ve probably heard time and again how important it is to have at least one strong mentor to guide you and help you develop the skills to get to the next level in your career. Most large companies even offer formal or informal mentoring programs. So you might think that both genders benefit equally from having a mentor. However, a Harvard Business Review article, Why Men Get More Promotions than Women, highlights that men benefit more than women.

The article shares research from a 2010 study by Catalyst, a leading nonprofit organization that works with businesses to build inclusive workplaces and expand opportunities for women and business.

Here is one of the most notable findings from the research:

“Although women are mentored, they’re not being promoted. A Catalyst study of more than 4,000 high potentials shows that more women than men have mentors— yet women are less likely to advance in their careers. That’s because they’re not actively sponsored the way the men are. Sponsors go beyond giving feedback and advice; they advocate for their mentees and help them gain visibility in the company. They fight to get their protégés to the next level.”

The article goes on to say that men and women both mention receiving valuable career advice from their mentors, but men predominantly describe being sponsored. Women explain that their mentoring relationships help them better understand themselves and how they work, and what they might need to change as they move up the corporate ladder. Men, on the other hand, tell more stories about how their bosses and mentors have helped them strategically plan their career moves, assume responsibility and leadership in new roles, and openly support their authority.

The research certainly has implications for organizations as they design mentoring programs and explore how to best support the advancement of women. But there are also important implications for what you should personally do. Here are three suggestions to think about:

1. Recognize the distinction between mentorship and sponsorship.

Both mentors and sponsors offer tremendous value in helping you develop yourself and proactively manage your career. Mentors typically serve as role models, providing guidance and perspective to help you further develop your skills and navigate challenging political situations. Sponsors, on the other hand, give you exposure to opportunities and visibility to influential leaders, and advocate on your behalf.

2. Have mentors and sponsors in your network.

Recognize that the skills required to be an effective mentor may be different from what it takes to be an effective sponsor. Mentors can typically hold any position in the organization and can help you close gaps in your skills, while sponsors have clout and yield considerable influence on key decision-makers. Remember to have both mentors and sponsors in your network, using your career goals as important context for whom you engage.

3. Be mindful of whom you choose.

It may be more comfortable for you to choose individuals who look like you. In fact, the research shows that men tend to gravitate toward men and women to women. However, when it comes to sponsors, more important than gender is the person’s role and level in the organization. Remember that it’s critical to gain sponsorship from leaders who hold senior-level positions and have influence and power. As you think about mentors, think about the skills you are trying to build and who may be able to help you fill those gaps.

So, to get you started, take a look at your existing network in the context of what you’re trying to accomplish personally and professionally. This will serve as an important guide to identify whom to engage as mentors and sponsors to get the support you need.