The differences between mentorship and sponsorship

The Difference Between Mentorship and Sponsorship


Mentorship and sponsorship are two concepts that have multiple purposes and vary in their usage. A university mentor could be a professor who helps a promising student find scholarship opportunities, whereas a career mentor could be a coworker who offers advice on ways to grow your career. While sponsorship and mentorship are admittedly similar, there are still some key differences, especially when considering the setting in which they are applied. No matter the situation, a quality sponsor or mentor can make all the difference in whether or not you succeed in achieving your life goals.

The terms mentorship and sponsorship are sometimes used interchangeably, yet when it comes to career-oriented mentorship and sponsorship, they are quite different —and aspiring leaders need both of them. As you look to grow your career, it’s essential to understand these distinctions, when you’ll need one or the other, and how to best approach them.

What is Mentorship?

A mentor’s main role is to advise their mentee to help them achieve their career goals. 

A mentor/mentee relationship is rooted in growth and guidance. Mentors take on an advisory role, helping the mentee overcome challenges and make more informed decisions through sharing their experiences, offering valuable input, and building a trusting relationship.

Mentorships come in many forms. In fact, a mentor could even be a group of people rather than one person. They don’t even necessarily have to work for the same organization as the mentee. A mentor only has to have more knowledge or experience in a certain field and an eagerness to help a less experienced peer or colleague navigate career challenges.

What is Sponsorship?

Sponsorships can certainly resemble mentorships in terms of the established interpersonal relationship, but with one crucial difference: a sponsor actively opens new opportunities on behalf of the person being sponsored. 

Sponsors advocate for their protégé and take an active role in their career advancement, sometimes in ways that may even be unbeknownst to the protégé. While a mentor will share their own advice or experiences in an effort to assist the mentee’s decision making, a sponsor will actively talk to senior leaders and colleagues to accelerate their protégé up the organizational ladder or otherwise further their goals. In this way, the role of the sponsor actually takes on potential risk in the event that the protégé does not live up to expectations.

Key Differences Between Mentorship & Sponsorship

As outlined above, the main difference between  mentorship and sponsorship is advice vs. advocacy, respectively. Below we’ve broken down some further differences:

Mentors Sponsors
  • Use experience and knowledge to offer advice/guidance
  • Can be anybody with industry experience or knowledge
  • Risk-free
  • Help formulate goals and career path
  • Advise how to build a network
  • Remain completely objective
  • Do not have to work within the same organization as the mentee
  • Do not speak on the mentee’s behalf
  • Help develop critical skills
  • Give perspective
  • Use knowledge and authority to provide vertical career moves
  • Are usually senior management or other position of high authority
  • Have risks
  • Help execute goals and career path progression
  • Actively build networks for the protégé
  • Are often subjective, as their own reputation is at stake
  • Work within the same organization as the protégé 
  • Often speak on the protégé’s behalf
  • Give opportunities

Chart from Williams and Dawson, Voice of Nursing Leadership, March 2021


How Does a New Leader Find a Sponsor?


“…global studies clearly show that sponsorship — not mentorship — is how power is transferred in the workplace. When it comes to getting ahead you need more than the counsel of a supporter; you need someone to advocate for you when you’re not in the room.”

-Business Insider, Why You Need a Sponsor — Not a Mentor — to Fast-Track Your Career

Because a sponsor’s main job is to “make room” for the protégé at an organization’s leadership table, it can be difficult for new leaders to find someone willing to bet on them. There are a few main elements that go into a successful sponsorship: integrity, drive, trust, transparency, and communication. These are characteristics that take time to develop in an interpersonal relationship in the workplace. While there’s no surefire trick to landing a career sponsor, here are some ways to make yourself a more attractive candidate:

  • Work Performance: First and foremost, you have to prove you’re not just capable but exceptional. By putting out great work and going above and beyond, you’re proving yourself to be a dependable person who’s worthy of attention and upward mobility.
  • Identify Potential Sponsors: Being sociable and likable is not only a great way to get to know people in your organization on a personal level and earn their trust. It’s also a way to identify potential career sponsors. Who has the most influence? Who would be willing to go to bat for you? When you’re scouting for a sponsor, always keep your objective at hand. Remember, you’re looking for “an ally, not a friend.” The last thing you want to do is to sink time and effort into attracting the wrong person or people.
  • Celebrate Your Successes: If you’re doing a good job, don’t keep it a secret! If you can bring up your big wins without bragging, your hard work will be noticed.
  • Share Career Goals: Interviewers often ask “where do you see yourself in 5 years?” Well, you should know the answer yourself and communicate it broadly among other senior-level executives who may have the influence to pave the way for you.  Forethought, drive, and initiative are some key characteristics that will draw a potential sponsor’s attention.

What are the Risks and Rewards of a Career Sponsorship?

A sponsor will naturally invest a lot of time and effort into their apprentice, as they are personally invested in the relationship’s success. Ideally, a sponsor will know the protégé on a personal level, be able to recognize their strengths and weaknesses, have unwavering trust in their abilities, and keep a watchful eye on new opportunities & promotions. However, when the sponsor makes the decision to advocate for the protégé, the sponsor puts their credibility on the line. Considering they are more than likely a senior executive, their recommendations carry a lot of weight. If the apprentice does not live up to expectations or is otherwise unsatisfactory, it reflects poorly on the sponsor, undermines their credibility, and diminishes their reputation. At the same time, the protégé will also take on reputational damage, possibly stifling their chances for future recommendations within their organization. 

Nevertheless, when a sponsorship works out, it becomes a symbiotic relationship from which everybody benefits. The sponsor reinforces their reputation and reliability, flaunts their eye for talent, and shows their dedication to their company’s vision by appointing qualified, driven workers in high places. Similarly, the protégé benefits by landing a better role and accelerating their career growth. Lastly, the company as a whole benefits from having a strong talent pool and employees who know how to elevate each other when the need arises.

Why Healthcare Organizations Should Promote Sponsorship

First and foremost, it’s important to encourage sponsorship among leadership teams. Ask them to keep an eye out for up-and-coming talent in their departments and encourage them to promote those individuals through public engagements (awards, speaking, presentations at conferences and the like) to bolster their expertise and showcase it industry-wide. 

Additionally, from an organizational perspective, a comprehensive strategy to promote sponsorship can help create a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion plan or solidify an existing one. Imposter syndrome is a real phenomenon in the healthcare space, especially for women of color. Dr. Margaret Ann Pisani writes,

“Women in medicine are often perceived to be less likely to seek sponsorship opportunities, though sponsorship has been shown to be critical for successful career advancement. While women now make up the majority of medical students, as the Association of American Medical Colleges reports, they’re still underrepresented in leadership, publications, awards and professional advancement.”

Because sponsorship tends to be so important for upward mobility in the healthcare industry, it’s important for organizations to take active, deliberate steps to promote internal sponsorship. Some healthcare executives have already recognized this need. Jhaymee Tynan, for instance, wrote a compelling piece for Forbes, stating that her personal goal is to sponsor 100 women of color in healthcare by the year 2030. She recognizes that professionals of color who have sponsors are 57% less likely to quit their job within one year when compared to professionals of color without sponsors. Organizations that encourage sponsorship not only improve their talent, they retain it.

Tynan adds, “Sponsorship means taking action and holding myself accountable for the results. I am publicizing this goal for two reasons: I want my peers to keep me honest and serve as accountability partners. I hope to inspire other healthcare executives to take this pledge with me.”

Kirby Bates is Here to Help You Move Forward

If your healthcare organization struggles to find leadership talent, we can help. Our nationwide network and reputation have allowed us to match lasting exceptional leaders to key positions for over 30 years. We are a trusted partner for hundreds of prestigious organizations because of our high success rate and first-hand knowledge as healthcare and nurse executives. 

Get in touch to learn more! 


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