Editor’s note: Jamie Ousterout, CDE, is Vice President of Client Success at The Diversity Movement and an expert in operational strategy, having spent more than a decade in creative, marketing, and digital companies, serving local, regional, and international clients. Connect with her on Linkedin.


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Human connection is essential for health and productivity – in our personal lives and at the workplace. Throughout all the challenges of the past several years, we have learned that long-term success hinges on stronger culture. An essential way to bridge the gap between connection and success is via mentorship and sponsorship

These programs strengthen talent retention and create strong networks for future leaders, but for them to work best, it’s imperative that executives understand the difference between the two. Although often similar, the outcomes are significantly different.

Mentorship and Sponsorship: Powerful, but Different

Mentorship can be a formal or informal relationship focused on professional development that includes coaching, advice, brainstorming and feedback. Often, mentors serve as a sounding board when mentees want a second opinion. Mentors are also great for talking through applicable scenarios that then provide a different perspective for the young leader. 

Sponsorship, on the other hand, describes an agreed-upon relationship between an executive sponsor and a professional sponsee within the same organization. Sponsorship includes advocating for the participant in rooms where they do not have a voice. And, sponsorship is more formal, such as spotlighting achievements and nominating them for expanded opportunities like project leadership, promotions and speaking engagements.

Mentorship assists with career development, but sponsorship accelerates career growth. 

Mentorship is especially important when it comes to fostering a sense of inclusion and belonging. Having a trusted source to lean on for support creates a sense of community and safety. For underrepresented groups, this is particularly important, especially if individuals are the “only” or one of just a few individuals at the organization from a certain demographic group. 

Sponsorship, which is often more business-oriented, boosts the visibility of sponsees and typically has a more direct impact on representation. While mentorship is critical to fostering belonging, it doesn’t necessarily lead to high-stakes assignments or a voice in decision-making, both of which are prerequisites for climbing the corporate ladder. Sponsorship is especially necessary for women and people of color, who tend to – even as they advance within an organization – lack responsibility for profit and loss. Thus, it is imperative that sponsors advocate for placing underrepresented individuals where they can gain the skills and experience needed for a C-suite trajectory. 

It’s important to note that mentorship and sponsorship can have different results, depending on the demographic group. For instance, research has shown that having a mentor increased the likelihood of promotion two years later for men, but had no effect on promotion for women. This is due to women’s mentors being less senior than men’s mentors and women having fewer interactions with senior leaders, even as they advance. This underscores the importance of using formal sponsorship tactics to ensure equitable resource distribution and opportunity. 

The challenge with sponsorship is that most people don’t know what actions to take to be an effective sponsor. Rosalind Chow presented the ABCDs of sponsorship in the Harvard Business Review: amplifying, boosting, connecting, and defending. 

  • Amplifying – Promoting a sponsee’s accomplishments. Self-promotion can be dangerous, especially for women, in spaces where humility is valued. Thus, having a sponsor talk up a sponsee’s accomplishments is critical.
  • Boosting – Formally nominating or recommending a sponsee. Sponsors are seen as objective third parties, and thus make more of an impact than self-nomination would. They, in effect, “stake some portion of their own reputation on an implicit guarantee about the protégé’s future success. They underwrite it.”
  • Connecting – Connecting yourself to the sponsee and connecting that person to others. This builds the participant’s reputation via association. 
  • Defending – The most effective and costly aspect of sponsoring, which centers on standing up for the participant and challenging the attitudes and beliefs of others. This is especially important for women and people of color – often viewed through a lens of bias.

Both mentorship and sponsorship are beneficial strategies to support historically marginalized individuals in the workplace. However, sponsorship has a more direct impact on an individual’s career than mentorship. While mentorship should still be prioritized as a culture-building tactic, sponsorship is key to ensuring equitable opportunities within your organization. 

A culture-centric organization should provide both types of opportunities for its rising stars, especially considering the value of connection in the business community. The informal and formal relationships created through these programs benefits the organization and creates new pathways for workplace excellence.