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It’s NOT mentor vs. sponsor – It’s mentor THEN sponsor

Mentors vs sponsors

Mentorship vs. sponsorship is one of the most hotly googled mentoring related searches, which means lots of people are weighing up the pros and cons of both – and wondering which one to pursue in lieu of the other.

The answer is that you don’t choose either. You engage in one, which evolves into the other.

Mentorship must come before sponsorship – because trust comes after making a commitment to trustworthy behaviour, which takes time.

To see how and why a mentor evolves into a sponsor, and how mentorship and sponsorship intersect – it’s best to look at the costs of each to the mentor or sponsor – and why it just doesn’t make sense to pursue sponsors before pursuing mentors.

The cost of mentorship to the mentor

People often ask “what’s in it for the mentor”, which is a question quite easily answered:

  • The positive feeling of ‘paying it forward’ and helping a fellow human
  • The ability to stay up-to-date on the latest trends and preferences
  • Building your own pipeline of trusted mentees, who may later become trusted employees – or young entrepreneurs

These benefits are tried and trusted by millions of mentors; even so, there are some tangible costs to the mentor as well:

  • The time required to engage with a mentee
  • The risk associated with taking someone you know little about under their wing
  • The opportunity cost of selecting one mentee over another

The cost of sponsorship to the sponsor

The cost of being a sponsor doesn’t have to be higher than being a mentor for everyone – but it is different and carries more weight for the vast majority of us:

  • Sponsorship requires putting your own reputation on the line – which is a never-ending commitment
  • Sponsorship requires some form of time commitment as well

The crux of the cost differential between mentorship and sponsorship is the massive cost of putting one’s own reputation on the line for someone else. We have a fair amount of time in our lives; but we only have one reputation.

We’ve all experienced the tension change when someone asks you to introduce them to someone who you really respect, provide a reference, or introduce them to a powerhouse in your network.

It’s uncomfortable placing your own image in the hands of others.

If you recommend or introduce a person – you are by definition, giving them your seal of approval, which means people will also hold you accountable for those interactions moving forward.

The point here is that sponsoring someone is hard – because the outcomes are directly associated to you.

The point is that trusting someone else with your own reputation means you have to have a decent amount of proof that you can trust that person – first.

Why mentorship must come before sponsorship

Intuitively, we all understand that in order for someone to ‘sponsor’ or speak highly of us to others, we must have proven ourselves to some extent. 

You can become a candidate for sponsorship by being a high performer in our organisations e.g a manager can be both a reference and a sponsor if they have seen you work and trust you to continue to perform highly.

You can become a candidate for sponsorship by knowing someone in a non-professional sense for a long time, where they rust your personality traits to spill over into a professional setting.

While it’s very possible – and probable – to be able to prove ourselves to others without being mentored directly, the nature of a mentorship lends itself to sponsorship incredibly well. There is no better way to attract and ensure sponsorship than by finding great mentors who – if you show promise and action as a mentee – will be able to sponsor you into situations and positions which benefit you – and shine a positive light on them too.

If you’re a good and active mentee, you’ll never have an issue finding a sponsor.

Mentorship vs. sponsorship

I agree that sponsors can often open more doors than mentors. I also agree that women and other minorities need more than mentoring; they do need sponsoring.

But I can’t get away from the notion that if you don’t have a personal advisory board of mentors – who have spent time with you, and seen you set and achieve goals – then you will never have a personal advisory board of sponsors willing to advocate for you.

How to create an environment conducive to mentorship

If you agree that mentorship should indeed come before sponsorship, then the natural next question is: how do you create an environment where mentorship is accessible in a way that leads to eventual sponsorship.

For individuals:

  • ‘Put yourself out there’ and attend events etc.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask people to be your mentor (often without ever calling them your mentor)

For organisations:

How to transition from mentorship to sponsorship

On an individual level, knowing when your mentorship has transitioned to a place where the mentor would feel comfortable sponsoring you is part instinct – and part probing.

Give your mentorship some time to blossom, and yourself some time to prove yourself before you ask for favours or intro’s.

Your goal going into the mentorship should be to learn and develop from the mentor – and any sponsorship or additional network building is a bonus.

On an organisational level, some level of sponsorship should be built into your mentoring program. There should be obvious feedback mechanisms for mentors and mentees about how the mentorship is progressing – but also for the organisations around more holistic goals.

If a mentee is smashing their goals and objectives, and has shown clear intent for advancement, then it should be easy for – and encourage that a mentor should sponsor this person to success.

When mentorship is done right; when it’s inclusive and non-discriminatory (not reserved for the select) few; when it’s combined with the notion that experienced employee (mentors) who see promise in their mentees can advocate for and sponsor people in a meritocratic way – that’s when organisations and people will see real, tangible progress on all fronts.

It’s not sponsor vs. mentor.

It is mentor then sponsor.


Could your organisation benefit from more mentoring and more sponsoring?

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Heidi Holmes

Heidi is the Co-founder and COO of Mentorloop. She's passionate about all things mentoring, Kenny Rogers and Italian Greyhounds.

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