Tuesday, September 7, 2010

What is the difference between a sponsor and a mentor?

Question: What is the difference between a sponsor and a mentor? Do I need both?

Yes, you need both, and understanding the difference can make a world of difference to your career.

I jumped for joy and let out a Howard Dean-like scream when I read Harvard Business Review’s Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women because I believe the authors have stumbled upon a game-changing, ground-breaking insight into how women can advance within corporations.

The report draws from Catalyst’s research to describe how men and women have roughly equal access to mentors, with women slightly more likely to report having being mentored. However men are still gaining an edge in the career opportunities that result. So the authors asked “If the women are being mentored so thoroughly, why aren’t they moving into higher management positions?”

Read the full article if you have time, and if you do not, here are my key take-aways:

1) All mentorships are not equal.
2) The difference is sponsorship, when the mentor “uses his or her influence with senior executives to advocate for the mentee.”
3) Men and women both get valuable advice from their mentors, but it’s more likely for men who describe being sponsored.
4) In comparison to male counterparts, high-potential women are overmentored and undersponsored.
5) The more senior the mentor, the more rapid the mentee’s career advancement.

The authors concluded by summarizing what companies could do to advance women (less over-mentoring, more accountable sponsoring) but I am more interested in what women can do with this knowledge, to advance themselves.

Firstly, I’d like to defend mentoring as a valuable career tool, and not just for the knowledge you’ll gain. Asking someone to mentor you is a good way to expand your ‘upward’ network, and it is easier than asking someone to sponsor you. Engaging mentors is a great way to break the ice with potential sponsors.

We as women do need to rethink or at least expand the role we expect our mentors to play. Most of us are comfortable seeking guidance from our mentors, asking them for performance feedback and asking for help navigating workplace situations, but less comfortable asking our mentors to open doors for us, make introductions and connect us to career opportunities. Notice if you feel a bit uncomfortable reading that last sentence, and ask yourself if you have recently asked a mentor for any of those things. In my experience, guys are more comfortable asking their mentors to sponsor them. We need to do it more.

Career Planning Conversations
Sometimes a well-placed comment is all it takes to turn a manager or a mentor into a sponsor, and you can’t know what opportunities they might connect you to until you ask.

I call these ‘career planning conversations’, because they involve A) stating your career plan, and B) actively engaging someone who has the power to help you. Here are some things you could say:

• I am interested in becoming (state your career goal). Do you know of any opportunities I should go after? Who should I speak to? Would you be willing to connect me with them?

• I am interested in (job opening). Would you advocate for me?

• I would like to work for you one day.

I was coaching a woman to have more of these conversations, and we did some role-plays. Even though it was uncomfortable, she practiced saying: “I am interested in becoming a (career goal). Can you let me know if you hear of any opportunities I would be a good fit for?” Not long after our coaching session, a senior leader stopped by her office to check in on a business issue. As he turned to leave, she blurted out her pre-prepared script, and although she felt awkward asking for sponsorship, the leader nodded, looked thoughtful, then left.

Twenty minutes later he stopped by her office again and said “I think I have an opportunity for you”.