November 2, 2023

Sponsor your direct reports, don’t just mentor them

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I remember the first time I realized that someone was advocating for me at work. I overheard my boss on the phone in another conference room, and they were explaining to their boss how I’d been indispensable on a project.

It meant a lot to me. More, in fact, than all the times they’d complimented my work directly, or given me helpful career advice.

My advice this week is comes directly from our amazing professor Mita Mallick: 

If you’re mentoring your employees but you’re not sponsoring them, you’re missing the mark as a leader.

When I took Mita’s course last April and heard this piece of advice, I immediately remembered this conversation, how much it meant to me, and how much I can credit that boss with so much of my success today. 

So let’s talk about the difference – what makes a sponsor different from a mentor, and how to know if you’re doing one, both, or neither. 

If honing your leadership skills is one of your main goals this year, take our Inclusive Leadership workshop with Mita on Nov. 16. Use code LEADER for 25% off unlimited courses. 

What’s the difference between a mentor and a sponsor anyway?

First, let’s define these two roles. 

A mentor… 

  • Gives advice on problems their mentee is facing
  • Serves as a sounding board 
  • Shares ideas for advancing in their career
  • Teaches the mentee the “rules of the road” 

A sponsor…

  • Advocates for their report when they’re not in the room
  • Helps the report get promoted or compensated
  • Nominates the report for roles and opportunities
  • Introduces them to important people in the org 

How to tell if you’re mentoring or sponsoring

Q. Your direct report does a great job at something. What’s your first instinct?

  1. Congratulate them in your 1:1 and tell them what you loved about their work.
  2. Tell your boss that they did a great job in your 1:1 (and refrain from adding in how you helped as well). 

Q. Your direct report is showing potential in an area they don’t usually work on. What do you do?

  1. Encourage them to learn more about that area and share your own experience. 
  2. Connect them with another leader who has a project they can work on.

Q. Does your boss’ boss know how great your best direct report is? 

  1. No, it’s not really relevant to them.
  2. Yes - I never shut up about them. 

To be clear – there’s nothing wrong with mentoring. But if you answered all As, you might need to beef up your sponsorship skills.

10 ways to be a mentor and a sponsor

Let’s look at some specific ways you can start supporting your team’s growth as a mentor or a sponsor. 

5 ways to be a mentor

  • Ask your report which areas they want to upskill in and set aside time to help where you can (or connect them with another colleague who can better assist)
  • Reserve at least 10 minutes in your 1:1’s to help your report solve problems or brainstorm ideas
  • Give extra thorough feedback on a project your team is working on
  • Offer to listen to your report practice an upcoming presentation and give notes
  • Have a coffee chat with a junior team member and share advice from your experience when you were at that stage in your career 

5 ways to be a sponsor

  • Highlight your report’s achievement to your leadership team when your report is not in the room (this doesn’t just have to be for your report – this can be just as, if not more, valuable for someone who doesn’t report to you)
  • Recommend your report for a growth opportunity or stretch project 
  • Advocate for your high-achieving team members to get tangible recognition for their contributions: promotions, raises, etc.
  • Invite your report to present their work on an important project to leadership to increase their visibility to decision-makers in your org (and then mentor them on how to make it go well) 
  • Regularly take note of your team’s accomplishments (and ask them what they’re proud of working on, to catch achievements you might miss otherwise) so you have supporting evidence when advocating for your team 

Set your goals as a leader 

Even with all the above strategies in our toolkit, the hard truth is that as leaders, we have a lot more on our plates than our team’s growth. It’s easy to deprioritize acting as a mentor or sponsor when we have 100 other projects demanding our attention. 

But the best leaders (and therefore those who can attract the best teams) make time for this. You have to see this as critical to your team and your own success, and embed this practice into your everyday leadership style.

To hold myself accountable to my team, I took some time yesterday to fill out this plan and start acting on it.

Ways I’ll support my team as a mentor 

-This week: 

-This month:

-This quarter:

Ways I’ll support my team as a sponsor

-This week: 

-This month:

-This quarter:

Today, set aside a few minutes and build your action plan for being a stronger mentor and sponsor - I promise you’ll see positive returns for your team and yourself. 

Want to continue building your leadership skills? Sign up for Inclusive Leadership on Nov. 16. 

Use discount code LEADER to get 25% off unlimited courses.

Greg Shove
Taylor Malmsheimer, Head of Strategy