Sponsors vs. Mentors? What’s all the Buzz?

I recently received important feedback from a client. John had been serving as a sponsor in a specific Sponsor-Protégé program we launched in his firm He is an owner and leader in a large regional, soon to be national, firm. He spoke about the profound experience of his journey to understanding exactly what sponsorship means. John noted that when he entered into the program to serve as a sponsor to an emerging leader he really did not understand why this mattered so much. He did not recall having sponsors himself. He and the other partners he worked with, male and female, believed that strong and talented people surface on their own through hard work. While he still believes this, he has also come to see a complex topic quite differently. John also knew the firm had to do something to improve retention of top talent and accelerate development so he entered into the program experience with an open mind.

John shared with me that he now has a new perspective because the personal experience of this program has showed him something he has never understood before. There is a profound need to truly nurture aspirations of the talent coming up behind us in a way we never have before. Why? As John learned in the program orientation, the generations are very different in terms of developmental expectations. The science of developing talent has advanced greatly in the past 30-40 years. These and other differences in our teams such as gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic, social and less obvious but still tangible dimensions of diversity necessitate we work harder to build new skills. We cannot assume everyone is motivated by the things that have motivated us or that our traditional “one size fits all” developmental approach will work for enough of our talent to serve our growth needs. Even more interesting, by participating in a specific sponsor-protégé pairing John has also learned that he can and should interact with many people on his team differently then he has been doing in the past. He has realized that he has definitely sponsored many people over the years and been sponsored himself. He also realized that there are individuals he has unconsciously held off from sponsoring. These unconscious choices have had a major negative impact on the composition of his team. He has learned that he must apply the concepts on sponsorship more evenly on his team.

We are in an unprecedented talent shortage era in accounting. At the same time we have unprecedented retirement levels and unparalleled shifts in demographics in the profession in all aspects of diversity including ethnic, gender, generational, social, socioeconomic and more. All of these shifts point toward a need to dramatically improve retention, and most importantly, development of talent. Research shows that individualized relationship development and career path development is essential.

The most significant difference between mentors and sponsors is the level of active involvement in the career of the protégé. Sponsors are in a position of influence in the organization relative to the positioning of the specific protégé. Sponsors are also close enough to the protégé’s career trajectory AND personal goals to bring clarity to where the protégé should be focusing their efforts in the near future to accomplish individualized professional and life goals. This level of trusted relationship with someone in a position of influence in the organization can be a powerful barrier to exit for top talent. In addition, the sponsor is in position to be able to influence the opportunities the protégé has access to and is willing to actively “advocate” or “sponsor” this individual by placing personal reputation and political capital on the line in support of the protégé. This is a key point, if we recommend someone for an assignment, promotion, raise, committee, opportunity of any kind- we put a portion of our reputation on the line. This is the primary difference between sponsors and mentors. Until we are insiders of the leadership team we often are unaware of how prevalent the sponsor system is, yet we often leave this nearly entirely to chance.


The sponsor also plays the role of education, awareness raising and skill building, which may be common to mentor relationships but in conjunction with active advocacy on specific targeted opportunities and stretch assignments the combination is more powerful. Compassionate, specific and very targeted feedback is also an essential role of the sponsor. One of the most challenging things about career progression is understanding exactly what you should be doing when, how to procure these assignments for yourself and how to ensure the right people know you are doing the right things. For most emerging leaders, these steps cannot be accomplished independently because “potential is not developed in isolation”. Hence the need for sponsors.

Protégés also have a huge role to play. This type of program is not about anyone receiving anything they have not earned. This is all about leveling the playing field. We simply must ensure that the advantages that come from having sponsor relationships are not applied unevenly to our talent, that these acceleration factors are not based on immediate affinity or only applied to those we are most “comfortable with”. Protégés play an active role in seeking specific feedback and following through on a very targeted developmental plan engaging in stretch assignments while effectively utilizing their access to the counsel of their sponsor.

In the case of John, you might wonder what his protégé, Ann, had to say about the experience. Ann shared first her surprise that her sponsor John, who she felt she would not have strong “chemistry and affinity” with, could be so helpful in career navigation and in the end could provide so much essential information for forward movement. Ann also shares that she has worked very hard and learned things about herself and the organization that she never would have known but that are impactful to her staying with the firm and continuing to advance. Some of these insights have not been comfortable to come to terms with but they have been very important to her. Finally, Ann expresses her initial lack of belief that there were many areas she and John would share experiences and viewpoints on and how she has been wrong about this. None of which would have been apparent had they not worked to form a trusted relationship. They moved past the immediate obvious affinities, to learning more about the journey each had been on and were still working through. This is one of the most important elements of a sponsor program: the opportunity to learn to build trusted advisor relationships with individuals who you may not immediately share a connection with….and to learn to build sponsorship more inclusively into the day-to-day interactions with our teams. The learning also cascades into our marketplace connections with prospects and clients.




About the author

Mary BennetMary has spent the majority of her career as a partner in a top ten firm.  Mary now works as a consultant to public accounting firms in all areas related to organizational development and effectiveness.  Mary’s expertise includes diversity and inclusion, executive coaching, business performance, and leadership development as well as many other areas of organizational effectiveness