Questions to Ask When a Mentor Becomes a Sponsor

by Rik Nemanick, Ph.D.

Protégé ClimbingAs a tool for developing talent, mentoring can be so powerful because mentors are so versatile. One mentor can play a multitude of roles for one protégé. A mentor can be seen as a role model, inspiring her protégé by leading by example. She might also act as a sounding board, thought partner, and advisor, giving her protégé the time and space to ponder his world and expand his thinking. She might also provide protection within the organization for protégé, giving him cover for taking risks or helping him recover from mistakes. Finally, she might advocate on his behalf, helping him secure opportunities that he otherwise would not have been available to him. It is this last pair of roles, protector and advocate, that many have defined as the “sponsorship” role of the mentor. In fact, some authors have begun to separate the sponsorship role of a mentor from the other roles, declaring that protégés should not just seek mentors, they should seek sponsors.

Instead of being distinct roles, I see sponsorship is part of a constellation of roles that mentors can play for protégés. In fact, in her HBR piece, Herminia Ibarra presents mentoring as part of a continuum leading from mentor to sponsor, with the intermediate steps of strategizer, connector, and opportunity giver in between. This conception of sponsorship shows an increasingly active role the mentor plays in helping the protégé achieve her or his goals. At Ibarra’s “mentor” end of the continuum, the mentor acts in a more traditional way, as a nonjudgmental thought partner and source of guidance. As the mentor moves along the continuum toward sponsorship, she plays a more active role by making connections, creating opportunities, and actively advocating for a protégé’s advancement within the organization. 

It makes sense to want mentors to act more as sponsors for their protégés. Mentors, by nature of their senior roles, are often in a position of influence within their organizations. They have connections with other powerful leaders and access to networks the protégés do not. Such access can be key to helping open doors and create opportunities for protégés, especially those to whom access has been denied in the past (e.g., women, ethnic minorities, other marginalized groups).

Further, sponsorship can be more satisfying to the mentor in the short run. Taking a more active role allows the mentor to take tangible steps to help a protégé as well as see more immediate impact of her efforts. For example, it takes a lot longer to see results acting as a sounding board and advising a protégé on how to get visibility in the organization when compared to directly advocating on behalf of a protégé. In addition, mentors can often see opportunities a protégé doesn’t, sometimes because the mentor has a broader perspective and sometimes because the mentor has access to information and networks the protégé doesn’t. If a protégé has a goal, a sponsor can provide a shortcut to achieving it by opening doors and advocating for the protégé.

But, as some authors have lamented, when given the chance, many “sponsors” revert to the other mentoring functions and fail to fulfill their potential as sponsors. They miss opportunities to advocate or open doors, instead emphasizing the thought partner and advisor portions of the mentor’s role. What many of the authors who advocate for sponsorship over mentoring fail to recognize is that the increasing involvement of a sponsor involves more risk on the mentor’s part. In a mentoring partnership, the risk is primarily with the protégé, who needs to open up and be vulnerable with the mentor. The mentor’s job is to “create a safe place” for the protégé so he can take that risk, but the mentor does not risk much herself. In sponsorship, the risk is much greater for the sponsor. She is extending her reputation to the protégé by vouching for him and, as one author states, provide “air cover”. While some sponsors accept this risk willingly, many are not comfortable risking their own reputations for someone they do trust yet. If we want sponsors to be willing to take that risk, we have to acknowledge that there is a risk and help the mentors find ways to trust their protégés.

Another danger of sponsorship is the mentor taking the lead from the protégé. My first rule of mentoring is to Lead by Following. A mentor’s job is to empower a protégé to take the lead, but not to do it for him. When a mentor starts acting like a sponsor, she runs the risk of superseding the protégé’s goals with her own and steering the protégé in a direction he does not want to pursue. For example, when I was nearing the end of graduate school, one of my mentors set me up with a job interview at a research group at a medical school. While my background would have been suited for the role, it wasn’t a job I really wanted. I went to the interview out of a sense of obligation to my mentor, but I’m sure the interviewer knew I didn’t want the job. Worse, the mentor was disappointed I didn’t pursue it more and it caused some distance in our relationship. My mentor’s well meaning intention ended up doing more harm than good.

Finally, there is the proverb that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. As some authors note, there are good reasons to open doors and advocate for protégés who do not have equal access to senior networks within an organization. Many women and underrepresented minorities have been shut out of opportunities because senior leaders, who are often white and male, are more likely to sponsor protégés who look like them. In those circumstances, it can make sense for a sponsor to advocate for a protégé who wouldn’t be considered otherwise. But, there are times that a protégé is better served by learning to navigate those networks himself as the mentor won’t always be there to advocate and protect the protégé. Developing a comfort with senior networks and knowing how to comport oneself are skills that take time to develop. 

A mentor who wants to engage in sponsorship, therefore, has to weigh the benefits of advocating on a protégé’s behalf with the risks of playing a more active role. I might recommend mentors ask themselves some questions to decide if sponsorship is warranted:

  • Does this opportunity align with my protégé’s stated goals? Check in with your protégé to gauge his level of interest in the opportunity. Does it take him in the direction of what he wants for himself. Check on the second rule of mentoring, Chart a Course.
  • Is my protégé ready for this level of challenge? Even if the opportunity would help a protégé’s career path, talk about whether this opportunity too far outside your protégé’s comfort zone. There may be intermediate steps the protégé needs to accomplish first.
  • Is there another way for my protégé to access this opportunity? Ask if you are providing a shortcut to the protégé that could be achieved through some work (and learning) that would benefit the protégé in the long run.
  • Am I willing to risk my reputation? What happens if the protégé pursues the opportunity and fails at it? Are you willing to stand by the protégé for taking that risk? Your credibility may take a hit with your peers if you advocate and the protégé fails. Further, are you willing to put in the work to help your protégé learn from the experience and get back on track?

The Mentor's Way BookSponsorship is a powerful role that mentors can play and it can have great benefits for both protégés and the organization. But, mentors should be mindful of how they undertake sponsorship and make sure they do it right and for the right reasons.

To comment on this article or to learn more about mentoring, contact Rik Nemanick at nemanick@leadership-effect.com. If you are looking for more to read about mentoring, you may want to pick up a copy of my book, The Mentor’s Way, on Amazon.