Implementing mentorship and sponsorships programs can be challenging, but the benefits and outcomes typically outweigh the upfront cost and necessary resources.
“I remember clutching my pearls saying, ‘Who’s going to speak for me?’ And that’s when I realized that there was something that was objective about the process, you know, the reality of what you did, but so much depended on who was speaking on your behalf and what they had to say and whether or not anybody else in that room would challenge that point of view.”
-Carla Harris, Senior Client Advisor, Morgan Stanley
In a February feature for Chief, Carla Harris described her experience witnessing a performance review process in a previous role. She expressed that at that moment, she realized that the voices and perspectives of colleagues, and senior leaders especially, were going to be important for her growth and development in the company. She realized that mentorship and sponsorship were crucial elements of every employee’s workplace experience.
Carla’s epiphany reinforces what Grads of Life has long known to be true: Mentorship and sponsorship:
- Are both important to the employee experience
- Support different elements of the employee talent journey
- Can happen organically, but require formally implemented programs to drive an equitable experience
What Is the Difference Between Mentorship and Sponsorship?
Mentorship is typically defined as a peer-to-peer relationship where the mentor supports the mentee in navigating the work environment. The mentor may not be in a more senior position, but typically has more tenure in a company, business function or field. The mentor typically supports the mentee in navigating workplace norms/culture as well as workplace relationships. Mentorship programs, if done well, largely drive employee retention and engagement.
You can think of sponsorship as mentorship’s lesser-known older sibling. Sponsorship differs from mentorship because the primary focus of a sponsor is not to develop or coach a protege; it is to leverage their own positional power and organizational clout in order to champion their protege and connect them with opportunities to grow. Sponsors are situated at senior levels of an organization and their proteges are typically early-career individuals. Within this power dynamic, a great sponsor will bring their protege’s name up when a stretch project with high visibility comes about, or amplify their protege’s work to push for career advancement.
What Are the Benefits of Mentorship and Sponsorship Programs?
Understanding the Benefits of Mentorship
Gen Z and Millennials, a growing majority of the U.S. workforce, say that their employer offering learning and professional development (PD) opportunities is important to them. Additionally, research shows that candidates prioritize the availability of mentorship programs specifically when choosing an employer.
Not only is there a benefit in attracting talent, seminal and contemporary research show that mentorship can improve employee retention as well. One study showed retention rates were 30% higher for employees who participated in a mentorship program when compared to those who did not. Interestingly, this study found that mentors were 69% more likely to stay when compared to employees who were not mentors.
While our argument at Grads of Life is that sponsorship is an effective tool for advancement, there is some data that shows that mentorship could support advancement as well. In the same study, about 25% of participants experienced a salary grade change while in the program compared to the 5% of employees who were not in the program. Because we know that mentorship often happens organically, mentorship typically benefits white employees most. With a focus on employees of color, formal mentorship programs can support in driving racial equity and employee retention rates in organizations.
Understanding the Benefits of Sponsorship
People are an organization’s most valuable resource. This is why sourcing, retaining, and advancing top talent is paramount to a company’s success. But, developing talent is more than just providing them with PD credits or one-size-fits-all trainings. Talented individuals need partnerships with people further along in their vocational journeys who can open doors for them. They need people who see their potential and are willing to dedicate their time and energy toward seeing it through to fruition. They need sponsors who will seek out avenues for them to experiment, learn, fail, and mature.
Research shows that “Because sponsorship is intended to create exposure and visibility for proteges, sponsorship is likely to increase career advancement for proteges of all races. Proteges who are recipients of sponsorship receive advocacy and access to networks that pave the way for career advancement beyond what is possible by virtue of talent and performance alone.” When talent understands that there are higher-ups not only rooting for but invested in their success, they are motivated to reach higher, achieve more, and advance within the organization.
What Are the Challenges to Implementing Mentorship and Sponsorship Programs?
While mentorship and sponsorship are different, and data shows that these programs can be effective, there are still challenges to implementation:
Goal-setting: Often companies will begin a mentorship or sponsorship program without clearly outlining how they will measure success. Being clear with participants about what they should expect upon graduation and being clear with leaders about the expected organizational impact can build buy-in in the implementation phase, as well as help determine how to create continuous improvement. Disaggregating employee data allows you to get intentional about the target of your efforts and identify specific employee groups who are getting overlooked at your workplace and could benefit the most from having an advocate.
Training: Training should be a top concern for program leaders. Research suggests that poor mentoring can produce worse outcomes than no mentoring at all; therefore executives and senior leaders selected as sponsors or mentors should have a clear understanding of role expectations. Before being assigned a match, mentors and sponsors should be trained in a variety of competencies, including leading a session, boundary setting, and delivering feedback, and content like unconscious bias, power dynamics, trauma-informed coaching, and antiracism concepts. When thinking about sponsorship programs specifically, give sponsors and proteges a framework for success, viewing sponsorship actions and activities as a “spectrum of behavior” with varying degrees of support. Make sure that both sponsor and protege have clarity around the purpose of and benefits from their relationship and see it as a two-way street. You should also consider setting expectations for the cadence of meetings, and the commitment level of program participants when developing your training program.
Employee matching: Making effective matches can greatly influence the quality of mentorship and sponsorship programs and the experience of participants. When thinking of matching mentors and mentees, first consider a variety of identity markers. While race, gender, age, etc., should not be a primary determinant of mentorship matching, they should inform how your company approaches building in supports for the relationship. For instance, participants in mentorship programs say that it is often difficult to build trust across racial lines. Turning to sponsorship, generally, people who have a sponsor tend to earn higher salaries: 6% more on average than those without. Some research suggests that proteges benefit most from having white male sponsors. To be clear, this does not mean that white men are best suited to be mentors or are proven to be most effective, but rather that white men are still overrepresented in senior leadership positions. To support cross-race relationships, tailor mentor and sponsor training to focus on competencies that meaningfully address this trust deficit and aid with understanding and cultural humility.
Impact measurement: When launching a pilot program, companies should take care to measure what is working and remain adaptable to feedback. Incorporating learnings can help to implement valuable process improvements to increase positive outcomes for participants. Here are a few metrics to consider when measuring the success of mentorship and sponsorship programs:
- Survey data of participants’ program experience
- Pre- and post-program rates of engagement/belonging, especially as compared to those not in the program
- Retention rate of participants compared to nonparticipants
- Performance ratings of participants compared to nonparticipants
- Advancement rate of participants compared to nonparticipants
- Time to promotion for participants compared to nonparticipants
At Grads of Life, we believe that mentorship and sponsorship are related, but distinct in nature. Both programs show a direct impact on employee retention, engagement, and advancement and have the power to materially change the lives of employees. These programs can also drive workplace belonging and broader cultures of inclusion. If you need support building a mentorship or sponsorship program or would like to determine how you evaluate the effectiveness of a current program, we can help.