What’s the Difference between Sponsorship and Mentorship?

When professionals think about what it means to advance women or underrepresented minorities in business leadership, two concepts often jump to mind: mentorship and sponsorship. And too often these ideas are confused or blended—to the point that they lose their potency as tools for achieving diversity, equity and inclusion goals.

A mentor is a person who gives a protégé advice, answers questions, strategizes career moves and professional development. A sponsor is someone who promotes a protégé to other people to help advance the protégé’s career. A pithy way to remember the distinction is this: “Mentors talk to you. Sponsors talk about you to powerful people when you aren’t in the room.”

Mentorship, particularly for underrepresented groups, often needs a formalized program to ensure that everyone who wants a mentor has access to one. Formal mentorship programs should have a framework and guidelines for both mentors and protégés. Formal mentorship matches the mentee with the mentor. When mentors who don’t have large networks or who may be more inclined to show affinity bias in choosing their protégés are matched in a formal program, and mentees are not overlooked, the process is more equitable. I recommend using a mentorship framework that includes the roles and responsibilities of both the mentor and the mentee, suggested topics for discussion, and checklists for both to prepare for meetings. Formal mentorship programs tend to have time limits of one to two years and may also have requirements for mentors and mentees to attend programming throughout the relationship apart from their one-on-one meetings. Both mentors and protégés must commit to meeting the requirements and must have (and give) enough time to dedicate to the program.

A formal mentorship program should also include reverse mentoring. Reverse mentoring is when the more junior mentee has the responsibility of teaching a new skill to the more senior mentor. We tend to immediately think about technology skills but should keep in mind that a more senior person may need help with communicating with different generations or understanding a new market segment. Reverse mentoring isn’t limited to merely learning to use a different type of social media or a specific database. Or the mentee and the mentor could commit to learning or improving a new skill together. Frequently, when a mentor is paired with a mentee who is from a different background and has a completely different worldview, the mentee may provide insight into barriers that they have faced in the organization while the mentor is in a position of power to either remove the barrier or raise the issue to other leaders who can effect change. If the organization has a goal of increasing racial, ethnic or gender diversity, pairing people who are from different groups helps to foster understanding and improve inclusiveness.

Sponsorship is for high-potential employees and is rarely done through a formal program. Because of the high-potential element, sponsorship tends to happen more organically and cannot be forced. There’s also a high-risk, high-reward aspect to it. The sponsor is in the position of advocating for a protégé, which can lead to higher expectations and—if the protégé does not succeed or fails to meet expectations—could damage the sponsor’s reputation with peers.

People advance to higher levels when they have sponsors. It does not need to be someone in the same organization, though it can be. Just because everyone may want a sponsor doesn’t mean that everyone will have one, which is unlike how formal mentorship programs work. Sponsorship is inherently a riskier and more bespoke relationship.

Therefore, instead of running a formal program for sponsorship, ask executives keep track of whom they sponsor—this is a huge area where affinity bias can hinder DEI goals. For example, leaders tend to sponsor protégés who look like them, have similar backgrounds or who just reminds the leaders of themselves when they were earlier in their careers. Socioeconomic background may also be a factor here, since people from poorer backgrounds are often not able to find sponsors with the same ease as people from more affluent families. Bank leaders can hold executives accountable for whom they sponsor and have them then go through an exercise of tracking whether their protégés are like them in race, socioeconomic class, gender or other identity factors. This exercise helps sponsors understand where they may need to broaden their list of protégés to people who are less like them. A mentorship relationship can grow into sponsorship if the sponsor is willing to back the protégé with the mentor’s reputation.

Women tend to be over-mentored and under-sponsored. I experienced this phenomenon myself during my military career before joining ABA. I had many well-meaning men attempt to mentor me; the problem, however, was that none of my would-be mentors were interested in helping me develop a leadership style that was authentic to me (compared to their monolithic, and decidedly masculine, ideas of leadership). Neither my appearance, personality or personal philosophy of leadership matched their expectations or their advice. I tended to take this advice from well-meaning but ineffectual mentors with a grain of salt. I did not find an individual to sponsor me during my military career until my last assignment, when it was already too late for me to advance further in the Army.

Mentorship alone increases the likelihood of promotion for men but does not have the same effect for women. Since mentorship can be a springboard into sponsorship, the fact that research shows women don’t derive the same benefits as men already puts women at a disadvantage in finding sponsors. Other underrepresented groups experience a similar disadvantage because sponsorship is a common manifestation of affinity bias.

When we are in positions where we can sponsor others, we should ensure that we are not sponsoring based on affinity but on the basis of an assessment of an employee’s high level of potential. We must absolutely be honest with ourselves about whom we sponsor. Some self-reflection and expansion of our networks may be in order if we are not sponsoring more than the candidates who remind of us ourselves.

Naomi Mercer is SVP for diversity, equity and inclusion at ABA, where she works with banks across the country to build and refine DEI programs. This article is adapted from a chapter in DEI Foundations: Practices for Accelerating Your Bank’s DEI Journey, a forthcoming book (September 2022) that applies DEI principles and practices to the banking industry.