We talk a lot about the different ways in which leaders can improve their effectiveness. The ability to manage toxic employees, the focus required to ensure a diverse, inclusive and equitable environment and the capacity to deal appropriately with mistakes are just a few of the skills that strong leaders develop to help move their organizations forward and keep them competitive.
But what about ‘one-on-one’ leadership? Ensuring that employees thrive frequently requires more than creating workspaces that are conducive to success. Encouraging employees to engage directly with those who may be in a position to help them succeed, and vice versa, allows for a level of support that goes even deeper than valuable overall organizational leadership.
One-on-one support is generally provided to employees in two ways: via mentors and via sponsors. It is important to understand the difference between the two roles, and how they each help foster success for the employees they benefit. While both mentors and sponsors are focused on helping those who are junior to them in their fields, they rely on different means of doing so.
First, let’s address the role of ‘mentor.’ A mentor is someone with experience who advises a less-experienced professional with respect to general career-related issues. While mentors are usually older than mentees, they do not necessarily have to be. They simply must have more experience in a particular area, industry or the business world than their mentees. In fact, a mentor may not even work in the same company, or industry, as their mentee.
What do mentors do?
· Act as advisors with respect to day-to-day issues
· Assist mentees in shaping professional goals
· Help mentees build confidence
· Help mentees navigate challenging work situations
· Reduce feelings of isolation or solitude
· Act as a sounding board
Basically, mentors offer advice and wisdom gleaned from having years of experience the mentee cannot yet claim.
So what is the difference between a mentor and a sponsor? As economist and Columbia professor Sylvia Ann Hewlett describes it: "Mentors advise. Sponsors act."
Sponsors are much more proactive and ‘hands-on’ than mentors. They do more than advise: they advocate. Not only are they in the same industry as their protégés, they work at the same company and take a direct role in their protégés’ careers and how they progress. A sponsor is someone who uses their position of influence and power in an organization to fight for a protégé’s professional prospects.
What do sponsors do?
· Push for their protégés to receive raises and promotions
· Use their connections to move their protégés forward
· Ensure their protégés maintain or update the skills necessary to move ahead
· Help protégés gain the experience required for upward mobility in their jobs
· Put their reputations on the line to help protégés succeed
Sponsorships in particular can have a remarkable influence on an organization, especially when it comes to fostering diversity. Often, unconscious bias can keep minority candidates from achieving a certain level of success. But intentionally ensuring that such employees have one-on-one sponsors actively looking out for their interests and taking ownership of their careers goes a long way toward countering and nullifying such biases.
Good leaders will use all the tools in their arsenal when it comes to creating a work environment that cultivates success. Promoting mentorships and sponsorships within a firm or organization is one of the best tools available.
 Hewlett, Sylvia Ann (2013). Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career Harvard Business Review Press.