Sponsorship Defined

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What is Sponsorship?

I’ve had some of the best mentors in the world. They’ve spent hundreds of hours with me, teaching, guiding, and giving advice. One mentor critiqued my job interview outfit and recommended practical shoes.  Another mentor met with me six months into my first job to draft a list of who would write letters for my promotion…in six years!  When I said it might be a little early, she answered, “Now you know who you need to get to know.”  Another mentor returned every co-authored paper covered in red ink that reflected hours of attention poured into my career.  These gifts of time and expertise were priceless; and they helped shape my career. 

My mentors dispensed more than advice and words of wisdom.  They were behind-the-scenes and public advocates for me and provided me with endorsements.  They used their names and reputations to get me opportunities.  They recommended me for speaking engagements, writing books and chapters, and key committee assignments. They opened doors that I did not know existed.  And they did this entirely without expectation that they would be recognized or thanked.  Their only expectation was that I would take advantage of these opportunities, and others that came my way, and be successful.  That’s way more than mentorship.  And, it has a name – it’s called “sponsorship.”  

Sponsorship goes beyond the fireside chats, drinks, or regularly scheduled mentoring meetings talking about time management. It goes beyond sharing anecdotes, advice, guidance and direction.  Sponsorship is to mentorship what venture capitalism is to buying stocks.  Sponsors don’t just buy a few shares because you are likely a solid investment.  Sponsors take risks and go all-in. But, don’t mistake sponsorship for altruism or generosity. It is not a gift. Sponsors promote a sponsee based on a calculated assessment of their future success and value.

The difference between sponsorship and mentorship

Here are a couple of phrases that I like about the differences between sponsors and mentors: 

  • A mentor will tell you to the answer; a sponsor will tell others you are the answer. 
  • Mentors help you skill up; sponsors help you move up
  • You might choose a mentor, but a sponsor chooses you. 

Why is a sponsorship critical for success?

Sponsors are both public and private supporters and advocates. In the public eye, the sponsor may be making high profile assignments or providing visibility to their sponsee.  But, behind-the-scenes, they are advertising their sponsee with subtle promotions and advocacy.  The sponsor’s publicity is directed at creating top-of-mind awareness for their sponsee. They are making sure the decision-makers in the organization not only know the sponsee’s name, but also associate that name with current and future success.  At other times, a sponsor’s advocacy is bold and loud, and they bang the table on your behalf.  Either quietly or loudly, the sponsor is positioning their sponsee for future success.

Both mentorship and sponsorship are not just part of leadership succession planning, they are also part of being a professional.  In fields like medicine, which is taught through an apprenticeship model, mentoring and sponsoring are woven into the fabric of training.  When I mentor junior faculty members, I am upholding a professional duty to “pay it forward.” When I sponsor promising high potential physicians, I am also ensuring the future success of my profession, by replenishing the ranks of capable individuals to fill future leadership roles. 

Think about some of the prominent experts or great leaders you have seen in your career. Now, ask yourself, “Who was the person that they were clearly grooming and promoting to be the next in line?”  If the answer is obvious, you may have identified a skilled sponsor (assuming their choice was a good one.) If you can’t come up with that leader’s heir apparent, you’ve probably identified someone with a leadership gap and someone who may not be devoted to ensuring the future of their profession.  


Here are two statements that are meant to poke you.  

  • If you are in a position of power and you are not sponsoring someone, you are failing as a leader.  
  • If you have great aspirations for future success and don’t have a sponsor, you will never reach your pinnacle.  

Did those two statements make you bristle or get a little prickly or salty?  Or were they a call to action, making you think “how do I get a sponsor?” or “how can I become a sponsor?” Then, stay tuned for the next two installments of this blog series on sponsorship, when I will give strategies for being a good potential sponsee and a good potential sponsor.  

This is part 1 in a three-part series on sponsorship.  Part 2 is strategies for becoming a sponsee and part 3 is strategies for being a sponsor.