Mentorship & Sponsorship: Two Powerful – and Different – Workplace Relationships

No one wakes up in the morning and says, ‘Gee, I can’t wait to get to work today, where no one values my contribution or has my back!’ It’s common knowledge that feeling supported at work leads to all kinds of positive outcomes like improved engagement, commitment, willingness to go the extra mile, and reduced turnover. And there are many ways that organizations can achieve a more supportive culture – among them, mentorship and sponsorship.

The terms mentorship and sponsorship are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are very different and describe two unique types of relationships. As Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Economist, founder and CEO of the Center for Talent and Innovation explains: “Mentors can build your self-esteem and provide a sounding board – but they’re not your ticket to the top. Sponsors, on the other hand, can be that ticket.”

Let’s look at mentoring. Both formal and informal mentoring arrangements can be extremely beneficial to individuals and their companies. And many companies think they are doing this well, but in reality are not hitting the mark. This is especially true for females in the insurance industry. The impact is felt not just in employee engagement, but also in the attraction and retention, in particular, of female advisors.

…while 92% of the agencies we surveyed reported having mentorship programs in place, only 34% of the women advisors reported having participated in any type of mentorship or teaming program at their agency.”

 Source: FlexPaths, Building the Bridge for Culture Change: A Mandate for 2020

High potentials – both men and women – seek workplaces that they perceive will value them, develop them and promote them. Making mentoring programs more robust is beneficial to the entire organization. An agency leader interviewed for our study went so far as to say that “mentorship was the biggest single thing that has changed behavior” in her agency.

Successful mentoring goes beyond the occasional coffee date, and the ‘how’s it going?’ conversation. Programs need to be intentional to avoid the typical mentoring derailers, such as lack of access, unconscious bias, and confirming bias, to name a few.

To get some perspective on what to look for in a mentor, we turned to Mary Atwood, who entered the insurance industry in the 1980s and for the first three years of her career was the only woman in an office of 60! Most recently, Mary spent ten years at Mass Mutual and is now a Managing Partner at Summit Advisory Group. Initially, most of her mentors were men. They did their best, and she was grateful, but there was no one to turn to who had been in her shoes.

Mary feels very strongly that having a meaningful relationship with a mentor can be a game changer in the insurance industry, especially in those few first difficult years when advisors are building their networks. And finding the right mentor is critical. Mary suggests finding a mentor who:

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Whether your business is new, growing or in the throes of succession planning, refreshing or introducing a formal mentorship program can have enormous benefits for new hires and seasoned advisors, alike. People with mentors are more likely to get promoted, as they are more likely to ask for and accept stretch assignments that expose them to growth areas and expand their skills. Stacey Cunningham, who just recently became the first woman president of the New York Stock Exchange, validated this sentiment when she told the Today Show, “I’ve been very, very fortunate to have had mentors who pushed me.”

Sponsors play a different role. They typically wield more power and can influence your career path at the organization. Sponsors typically have enough clout to open doors for their protégés, often championing them for promotions or raises. Ms. Hewlett puts it simply: “Mentors offer advice and wisdom, while sponsors can and will actively advocate for you — and expect you to make good on the doors they help open.” Finding a sponsor can require a different approach. To find a mentor, most people simply ask people they admire or who are doing what they aspire to do. But for a sponsor, it’s more typically about attracting the attention of someone more senior through your performance.

Understanding the difference between these two relationships is important, as is working with intention to find, leverage and cultivate both.