There’s a difference between a professional mentor and a sponsor, but women need both if they want help moving forward in their careers, explains Wharton Deputy Dean Nancy Rothbard. This episode is part of a series on “Women & Leadership.”


What’s the Difference Between Sponsorship and Professional Mentoring?

Dan Loney: While the importance of mentors in a career has been well-documented, there is also quite a bit of discussion about how a sponsor can play a vital role, especially for women. It’s a pleasure be joined here in studio by Nancy Rothbard, deputy dean here at the Wharton School and also professor of management. Nancy, we need to start by distinguishing the differences between a mentor and a sponsor.

Nancy Rothbard: Yes, it’s a really important distinction, so I’m glad you started there. A mentor is someone who can give you help, who has expertise and skill and can teach you things that are really useful. A sponsor is somebody who can help you gain access and opportunity. Sometimes you can have a person who can be both a mentor and a sponsor, and sometimes those roles are separate.

Loney: You’ve talked about the importance of sponsors for women.

Rothbard: I think that what we see in a lot of organizations is as you go up the leadership ranks, there are fewer women in those positions. What that means is that the access and the opportunity for women in these leadership roles is less salient. People don’t necessarily think of women for these roles. One of the things that sponsors can do is to really help get your name out there, make sure that you’re a viable candidate for a position, so that you are known and recognized and considered when people are thinking about taking on a new person in a new leadership role.

Loney: Is there a recognition of the importance of sponsors, and maybe that being a sponsor can be very beneficial?

Rothbard: I think that those are two really critical pieces. The research does show that people say that they want mentors and sponsors. I think they recognize that that is an important way to develop your leadership potential, to learn more from a mentor, and to be put forward by a sponsor. I think people do know that they want that.

From the sponsor or the mentor’s perspective, I think sometimes people do recognize that that’s actually a really important role that they should be playing in their own leadership capacities. For example, in my leadership roles, I recognize that one of my key jobs is spotting talent and developing talent and nurturing that talent — to make sure that we’re bringing people up for filling future leadership opportunities. Some people are more aware of that than others. I think the best sponsors that you have are the people who really are aware of how important that role is.

Loney: What was that process like for you? Was there a recognition that you had along the way of the capabilities that you may be able to bring to other individuals in terms of being a sponsor?

Rothbard: The light bulb for me was when I realized that my job depended on me being able to develop future leaders, people who could fill the roles that were going to be really critical for the organization’s success. That light bulb went off, and I realized, “Wow, this is actually a big part of my job.” I started being much more active and proactive about scouting the landscape, about thinking and getting to know people so that I knew what they were capable of, but also getting to know what kinds of things and places where they could thrive, because you have all sorts of people out there who are going to be able to thrive more in one situation than another. And the better I am at spotting that and matching those people to jobs, the better I’m going to be in my role as a sponsor.

Should Women Seek Out Other Women as Sponsors and Professional Mentors?

Loney: For the employee who is looking to find that person to be the sponsor, especially if it is a woman, is there any additional benefit of that sponsor being a woman and maybe understanding the process more and what that person has been going through?

Rothbard: That’s a great question. I think that the answer is sort of yes and no, right? On the one hand, it can be really beneficial as a woman to have a woman as a sponsor. On the other hand, it’s much more important to have a sponsor. For me, when I was coming up — and we still have sponsors at whatever level we’re at — but at different levels in my career, some of my sponsors were women and some of them were men. The key piece was having the right person sponsor me. I think that’s still the most important piece, and we have to recognize that as you go up the hierarchy in organizations, there are not as many women in some of those roles. So, I think having a sponsor is more important than insisting to yourself that that person be a woman.

Loney: I read that women tend to be over-mentored and under-sponsored. Explain why that is, and maybe there’s even a component in what you just said, in terms of the numbers of women who are in these roles to be able to provide this opportunity.

Rothbard: That’s part of the answer, absolutely. The relative right comparison between being over-mentored and under-sponsored is such that there are fewer people in these roles who recognize women often as having the leadership potential that is going to be of value in the organization. That’s where the under-sponsorship can come from, because one of the things we know from a lot of research is that there is a concept called homophily, which is we are drawn to people who are similar to us. It’s easier for us to relate to people who are similar to us. Because there are fewer women in these executive roles, that trickles down in a way that people actually have to be more conscious about sponsoring people who are not similar to them.

Loney: The mentor and the sponsor both have benefits to themselves.

Rothbard: Absolutely.

Loney: But are there characteristics that maybe the sponsor holds that are more unique to the development process than a mentor would have?

Rothbard: I think that they both play a role, but in different parts of the process. A mentor can help you really develop skills, can give you information, can give you guidance that can be invaluable as you develop as a leader, as a professional in any way in an organization. The sponsor is able to be the person who is in the room saying, “I see a huge amount of potential in Dan. He is going to be the next breakthrough for this organization, and we really need to take a chance on him.” Having somebody who is willing to say, “We need to take a chance on this person,” that’s often what makes the difference between people who are recognized and those who are not. They are put into critical leadership opportunities that allow them to advance in organizations.

How Employees, Mentors, and Sponsors Can Be Proactive and Intentional

Loney: When you talk about the structure and the buildup of an organization, having people like that is an incredible benefit to the growth of the organization, probably both within the walls of the offices, but also probably for the bottom line of the company.

Rothbard: Of course, right. This is about how we build our capacity in the organization, having the right people in the roles to make sure that we are succeeding and are rising to levels of excellence in our organization. We want to choose people who are excellent and who can be excellent. Having somebody who is willing to go out on a limb for you and put their own reputation out. When I’m a sponsor, and I’m promoting somebody, I’m also putting my reputation on the line as a good spotter of talent and somebody who is trusted, so that the next time around, somebody is going to listen to me. As somebody who wants to be sponsored, making sure that you earn the trust of the sponsor is a really critical characteristic that allows that sponsor to go out on the limb for you — somebody who is dependable, somebody who hits their marks, who is able to show excellence in terms of their performance and their skills, but also trustworthiness. Those are really critical qualities that sponsors look for in sponsees.

Loney: I guess the hope is that the more women you have moving up to the executive roles or leadership roles within companies, then the more opportunities you have for women to connect and be able to develop that sponsored relationship.

Rothbard: Absolutely, but also to recognize that women could sponsor men. Men could sponsor women. All of that can happen. The key is having women in these roles. I think the difference that makes is it creates an accessibility, a stereotype, if you will, or a role model that creates the potential for other people to see those women as having leadership potential. That matching process becomes easier when you have women in the C-suite or the executive ranks because other people say, “Oh, yeah, that’s a possibility.” And we can see how that works and how it’s effective.

Loney: What are some recommendations that we need to consider when we’re thinking about mentors versus sponsors in the workplace?

Rothbard: I have two key recommendations, one from the perspective of the mentee or sponsee, the employee who is potentially needing mentorship or sponsorship. That recommendation is you need to be intentional and proactive. It doesn’t just come to you. You need to actually enact. You need to seek out mentors, you need to seek out sponsors, and you need to show that you are worthy of their trust.

From the sponsor perspective, my recommendation is that you need to recognize that this is an active part of your job. You need to source talent from people in the organization, and you need to be really intentional about learning about who is in the organization, what their skill sets are, what might be a good fit for them, and be intentional about trying to not just recommend the same people all the time.