Mentoring vs. Sponsorship: Clickbait or Conundrum?

701 1024 Ellen Ensher
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Disneyland Mickey Mouse Mentoring vs. Sponsorship Anaheim CaliforniaImagine 10,000 Business Professor converging on Disneyland! Yep-that was the scene at this year’s annual Academy of Management meeting in Anaheim. I love this conference as I get to catch up with my peeps and totally dork out over esoteric topics of small and large importance. So this year I was part of a panel on mentoring and sponsorship organized by Katherine Giscombe at Catalyst. I spoke along with other mentoring scholars including Stacy Blake-Beard, Marcus Butts and Monica Sharif. I was asked to reflect on the recent popular wisdom circulating in the media that sponsors are so different and so much more important than mentors. As a long term mentoring scholar, this whole issue heats me up and I could not wait to dive in. The following are my remarks- would love to know what you think!

My Academy of Management 2016 remarks

I want to start by saying I have been a fan of Sylvia Hewlett’s work over the years and I still am. BUT, when I first read her book, “Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor” I felt disappointed and angry. However, since this is now an election year, I have successfully transferred my anger to other people! As I now reflect more deeply on mentoring and sponsorship, I am starting to feel more hopeful.

I felt disappointed for two reasons. One, I felt like this advice took us a step backwards. I felt that the distinction between mentoring and sponsorship was a false distinction and more clickbait than an actual conundrum. Second, I was disappointed to see that so many of the important ideas and existing measures contributed by our major mentoring scholars were not included in the book at all.

According to Hewlett in a 2015 Forbes interview, “Mentors advise, Sponsors act. Sponsors deliver.” I don’t think that is always the case.

As a long-term mentoring scholar, perhaps I am a bit of a traditionalist. After all, sponsorship has been a part of how we measure the instrumental function of mentoring for a long time. For example, consider the original Mentor Role Items scale from Ragins and McFarlin’s 1990 JVB article. The first set of items on this scale belong to the sub-scale “Sponsor” and includes items like: a) My mentor helps me attain desirable positions, b) uses his/her influence in the organization for my benefit and c) uses his/her influence to support my advancement in the organization. So, in the mentoring literature we have been measuring sponsorship as part of mentoring for several decades.

Switching gears, here is where I feel hopeful. I am happy that whole idea of mentoring and sponsorship is being talked about by a much wider audience so in this sense even a clickbait topic has benefits. Moving forward, I would like to suggest that we pivot the conversation.

In 2005, Susan Murphy and I conducted qualitative research on 50 executives and their protégés for our book, Power Mentoring. In our book, we talk about the idea (building on the work of scholars like Ragins, Kram, Ibarra, Higgins and Blake-Beard, Eby, Allen and so on) that successful mentors have a network of different mentors. We identified 12 types of mentors and many of us have been researching these types ever since.

In sum, the key idea here is that unlike a marriage, mentoring does not need to be a monogamous relationship. One mentor does NOT have to fulfill all our needs or perform all of the roles that a mentor can perform all of the time. In closing, I would suggest a new title and a reframe of these ideas. I suggest that we advise professional not to “Forget a mentor” but instead “Get One Mentor in Your Network Who is A Sponsor.”

Visit this link to learn more about the benefits of mentoring.