Mentorship or Sponsorship?

Published: February 21, 2017

Team succession happens formally and informally. When formal, high potential talent is promoted to greater responsibility under the mentorship of someone above them on the organizational chart. Often, a new title gets printed on a business card. When informal, the daily delivery of skill, initiative, and engagement creates opportunities that can’t help but get noticed. While there may not be a new title on the business card, these teammates end up under someone’s wing where resources and support can have immediate bearing. Because they’ve been sponsored, every day is a job interview. So, what’s the difference between mentorship and sponsorship?

Mentors teach, guide, advise, consult, and lead by example. Most people can name the influential role models who have shaped their direction. They include parents, professors, and coaches. The purpose and values that drive career paths are often steered by the lessons learned from mentors. Once you’ve had a strong mentor, it’s natural to want to pass the benefit along to a young protégé later in life.

Sponsors put their name and resources behind future leaders. On the platform of their reputation, they connect talent with opportunity. They invest their time and money in the development of the people who will someday do the same for others. Less focused on the teaching priority, sponsors are dedicated to positioning people of influence in positions of impact. Creative examples of sponsorship include:

  • Pay the tuition for a leadership course.
  • Assign project oversight with decision authority.
  • Extend a personal recommendation for advancement.
  • Assume the risk for early-career promotion.
  • Elevate the visibility of innovative discovery.
  • Invite feedback from the quietest teammate.

Consider the talent in your organization. Some of tomorrow’s leaders will follow the traditional path and fill the roles opened by various reasons for departure. Teammates who are sponsored will accomplish more than executing the succession plan. They will infuse your team with energy and innovation. They will ensure the health of your culture. They will provide the greatest return on your investment.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst College where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.