Mentoring or Sponsorship?

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By Maud Lindley

April 27, 2017

 Is one approach better than the other to enhance gender diversity?

In spite of the prolific literature produced around this topic, the lack of gender diversity at the top levels of our corporate world is a very complex, multifaceted issue which is often misunderstood or misinterpreted. A range of societal, personal and cultural factors come into play to affect the leadership gender imbalance. When attempting to simplify the issue or its solutions, we run the risk of stereotyping stakeholders and the benefits of different approaches, which can be unhelpful at best, misleading at worse.

I have often read or been asked to comment on the comparative value of mentoring and sponsorship to support the progression of more women in top leadership roles. I don’t believe in categorical statements and I strongly believe that both the practice of mentoring and sponsorship are required to help progress the issue. I also believe that one is a necessary conduit to the second one given the current context.

Why should we offer structured mentoring programs to women exclusively?

Over the last five years, I have personally interviewed hundreds of women and men, stakeholders of the banking, finance and property industries.  Without exception, all senior leaders, irrespective of gender, report that mentors and sponsors were crucial contributors to their success.

Earlier on, when the issue of gender diversity was first addressed by organisations and the media, we made the mistake of wanting to ‘fix women’. For several years, the topic of women’s leadership development and mentoring was often the single core focus. Unfortunately, it has led to a simplistic stereotype message: ‘women need help’. Mentors, who are senior business leaders and therefore in the current context, most often men have been stereotyped as the ‘helpers’. We need to move away from these labels which are only making the very issue we are fighting against, more salient.

To be absolutely clear, I don’t believe women need mentoring more than men do. I believe both men and women achieve successful results in their career with the help of mentors, advisers and sounding boards. The issue though is that men have more regular access to advice from mentors through informal relationships within or outside their organisations.

Most young male executives tend to receive informal mentoring and sponsorship from male role models and leaders within their organisations. Indeed, they usually connect more easily and generally have more opportunities to participate in activities outside of work that foster these relationships. Offering structured mentoring and sponsorship programs to women exclusively aims to provide them with an opportunity they don’t have and which has been identified as a key factor of career success.

Would sponsors be more helpful than mentors?

The fundamental difference between mentoring and sponsorship lies in the personal commitment that a leader makes about the results achieved by their protégé. In a mentoring relationship, the mentee drives the agenda, uses their mentor as a sounding board and is solely responsible for the achievement of the objectives they have set.

A sponsor however, accepts responsibility for the promotion of their protégé. They identify what is required for their professional growth and provide feedback to help them achieve these results. More importantly, a sponsor will personally fight, protect and advocate for their protégé’s recognition and promotion in the organisation. Sponsorship focuses on career advancement and is predicated on power, it is a powerful differentiator in helping anyone to be appointed on visible, crucial projects and clients.

Our experience shows that both mentoring and sponsorship approaches are extremely useful throughout an executive career and successful individuals systematically report the use of both a mentor and a sponsor to achieve their professional goals.

They use their mentor as a sounding board to boost their confidence and help them develop technical, interpersonal and leadership skills. With their mentor, they can address personal challenges and doubts. They are willing to be challenged to change their perspectives and try new behaviours sometimes outside their comfort zone.

With their sponsor, however, the conversation focuses on their strengths and career aspirations. Their sponsor needs to be in a position to advocate for them and promote their strengths, their achievements and the value they bring to the organisation.

Both conversations are crucial but vastly different.

Women tend to struggle to be recognised for their leadership potential because this is a crucial transition and one that requires a leap outside their comfort zone. Typically, when looking at their career opportunities, women tend to emphasise on their skills, their expertise and previous experience whilst men emphasise on their potential. We also deal with the issue of perception and unconscious bias: women who do promote themselves ‘atypically’ will be discriminated against on the grounds of being too ‘aggressive’.

Whilst their sponsors will be pivotal to help bridge this gap, mentoring conversations will also allow them to openly discuss and address their challenges in promoting themselves genuinely and powerfully. I don’t believe you can have these open conversations with the people who are in a position to promote or sponsor you and trust they will still be effective at it when they know the hesitations or ‘inner-challenges’ you are facing. And this is true for men and women.

Do we need structured mentoring or sponsorship programs?

So how do we indeed encourage more leaders to sponsor women within their organisations? Can we set up structured sponsorship programs in the same way as we have developed mentoring programs?

Unfortunately, this is not directly comparable. I don’t believe you can expect participants of a structured program to sponsor another individual if that relationship has not developed organically over time. Trust and intrinsic belief in the value and the capabilities of the protégé are of the essence for the sponsor to seize the right opportunity and put their own reputation on the line when recommending a candidate.

As we have highlighted earlier, male leaders are not often developing these strong, trust based relationships with female key talent. If we cannot structurally appoint them to sponsor women within their organisations, we can however, influence the way they develop these relationships organically and their understanding of the crucial need for them to do so in the context of gender diversity objectives.

We can expect them to mentor women as part of a structured program which also helps them to understand the different approaches women tend to have to self-promotion, networking and sponsorship. In the dialogue with an appointed mentee, particularly when this dialogue is open, honest and free of the constraints of political correctness, they learn to see things from their mentees’ perspective. Both mentees and mentors confront their beliefs and expectations around the right approach to sponsorship and the leadership promotion pathways.

Through a formal mentoring process, female mentees are supported to reflect on how they can develop the key relationships which will become crucial sponsors for their career and male mentors discover how important it is for them to proactively seek out these conversations with women within their organisations.

From this perspective, I would say that formal mentoring programs are a fantastic tool to enhance the active sponsorship of women throughout the industry. We absolutely need to be more vocal and explicit on the need for senior male executives to sponsor women: mentoring programs help them understand why and how.

Does mentoring enhance inclusive skills?

The value of diversity is in the dialogue, the exchange and the dynamic that a group of diverse people achieve together. Contrary to what we may have thought in the past, the value of diversity does not come from the addition of different skills brought by different gender, cultural or ethnic groups. There are actually very little differences between the skills that women and men bring to the corporate world and stereotyping those is not helpful. Research demonstrates that the value of a diverse executive team is its ability to take into account a variety of different perspectives and challenge each other to achieve better business outcomes.

With this concept in mind, it becomes obvious that to truly harness the value of diversity, executives need to enhance their inclusive skills. Unconscious cognition and its natural biases can come in the way of embracing the dynamic of inclusivity and this is not a gender trait. Both men and women can develop their acumen of what truly drives their own instinctive decision making process for better business outcomes.

A mentoring conversation is the most powerful way to enhance our respective understanding of the value of the different perspectives men and women bring to the leadership table. It helps develop inclusive skills which draw on our capability to listen and confront our own beliefs.