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Everyone Talks About Mentors. But What About Sponsors? Here’s How They Differ — and Why You Need Both

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Mentorship can be a buzzword in the business world, but it is not always carried out effectively. Too often, mentorship turns into glorified networking or infrequent meetings for a quick coffee. Recently, the idea of sponsorship — intentionally advocating for one’s mentees — has been added to the conversation to help businesses focus on developing and promoting employees to develop strong, diverse teams.

Sponsorship and mentorship are different from one another, but they should not be carried out in isolation. Within a business, the only truly effective way to implement these processes is to see them as two parts of a cycle that should repeat continually. For this to happen, those in leadership roles must incorporate a deliberate approach that aims at continual development.

Related: How Mentorship Programs Can Lift Underrepresented Employees In The Workplace

Mentorship that aims at sponsorship

To mentor their employees effectively, mentors must develop specific goals for their employees’ professional growth. To develop these goals, they need to be on the lookout for two key areas of development: strengths and gaps.

  • Identify strengths: Identifying strengths in your mentees means working with them closely to discover their experience, abilities and passions. These strengths aren’t limited to knowledge in their field but could include personality traits such as leadership skills, the ability to learn quickly or an interest in a particular role or area.
  • Identify gaps: For mentorship to be a continuous, effective process, consider what your mentees still need to learn to move forward. They may have knowledge gaps that require further training, or perhaps they have the knowledge for new roles but lack the skills to lead a team or communicate effectively with clients. Consider how you can assign stretch projects that provide an environment for them to ask questions, discover new abilities and feel supported in a new setting.
  • What it is not: Mentorship is not just networking or turning an employee into an assistant. Effective mentorship looks forward to sponsorship, equipping employees to grow within your company.

Related: How Mentorship Programs Can Create A Culture Of Continuous Learning In The Workplace

Strategic sponsorship

Sponsoring employees internally means deliberately drawing on the knowledge gained through the mentorship process to put employees forward for new roles and responsibilities. This requires flexibility and willingness to repeat the cycle continuously.

  • Flexibility: As a mentee’s knowledge and abilities grow, so should their role and recognition. Being willing to change or develop someone’s role within the company allows you to place employees in roles where they will contribute most effectively to your business and gain the most satisfaction.
  • Continual mentoring: Employees should never be promoted and then left to figure it out alone. Once a mentee has been sponsored for a new role, they will have new strengths and gaps that require development and training. This may even mean equipping them to be mentors in turn.
  • What it is not: Sponsorship is not adding more responsibility to an employee’s plate without the proper promotion or redefinition of their role. To create a healthy team atmosphere, employees who have grown enough to take on new roles must feel that their growth is being formally recognized and celebrated.

Repeating the cycle

While mentorship and sponsorship may sound like one-on-one experiences, when combined, these processes can propel the growth of a whole team simultaneously. We’ve seen this growth at Outpace regularly. A while ago, we hired a new SEO specialist; let’s call him John. I soon identified two of John’s key strengths: his ability to learn extremely quickly and his previous experience. I began mentoring him and training him on our internal processes, how we run our SEO meetings, and more. I brought his potential to the attention of our executives, and within six months, we promoted him to lead the SEO team. I continue to mentor him as a leader in his new position.

Our process doesn’t stop there. John quickly realized that Jane, a member of his SEO team, was contributing above and beyond her current role. He now mentors her to handle SEO quality assurance in a role that recognizes the full potential of her contributions at Outpace. These are just two examples of how mentorship and sponsorship can have a trickle-down effect and empower team leads to become mentors and sponsors themselves.

Related: How Expert Mentoring Fuels Startup Success

Individual relationships: Team benefits

Clearly, mentorship and sponsorship affect the whole workplace, not just individual employees. When employees see potential for their professional development at their current company, their job satisfaction increases. Rather than making employees feel overworked, this cycle provides them with opportunities and recognition. This helps to increase employee retention since employees don’t have to look elsewhere to feel like they’re making progress. One of the key benefits of mentoring and sponsoring employees is that they also become strong leaders and mentors. This allows the process to repeat itself with new employees. Over time, mentorship and sponsorship form strong businesses where interconnected teams continually grow and advocate for their colleagues.

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