Mentorship vs Sponsorship: Understanding the difference in DE&I

There are benefits to both mentorship and sponsorship. How do they factor into your DE&I strategy?

Both mentorship and sponsorship play critical roles within the framework of both corporate entities and the individual professional journeys, and it’s important to understand the difference when evaluating which will be most effective, particularly as it relates to a DE&I strategy. Generally, it comes down to the parties involved, how they relate to one another and what they’re looking to get out of it.

What is mentorship?

Typically, mentorship is comprised of two people, one with more experience than the other, and the focus is around growth and personal or professional development. Mentorship within a DE&I context can be structured to address a growing employee resource group community; as we know, a large reason for continuing underrepresentation of many groups is due to the lack of diverse networks within senior leadership teams. Mentorship in these programs gives leaders an opportunity to meet more diverse members. This provides increased opportunity and access for both sides of the equation.

Formal mentorship programs can be a great component for successful and progressive DE&I programs, particularly in organizations that see a lack of diversity within leadership.  Structuring a mentor program within an existing or growing ERG community can be key to prioritizing those who may not have had access to senior leaders in the past. It can also provide an opportunity for leaders to learn from those they are mentoring within the ERGs, including how to drive a culture of inclusion for others within the business and open future pathways to leadership.

What is sponsorship?

Though mentorship is more often used within the broader business community, sponsorship is equally, if not more, important within DE&I programming and ERG communities. From this lens, sponsorship works to open doors for an individual, program or group and often supports a more marginalized community. For instance, an executive who’s sponsoring a program or community will likely be brought in to do one of three things:

  1. Help ERG leaders advocate for issues they are currently facing, including pushback from areas of the business that may be focused on maintaining the status quo that could be perpetuating inequity.
  2. Advocate for the ERG or program, understanding that other leaders at the proverbial table may have access to influential higher-ups the underrepresented group does not, and ultimately asking for their buy-in and support.
  3. Help align the ERG’s measurement of impact with the business, ensuring that there are strong relationships and connections with functions throughout the business to drive overall goals.

When it comes to sponsorship, it’s important to understand and set expectations for the sponsor; for instance, are they supporting the removal of barriers, or advocating for resources and support? What will constitute a win?

Another consideration that should be taken into account is which functions need additional buy-in for the sponsorship to be effective. Is there positive support from marketing, but low engagement from HR? In this scenario, perhaps bringing in someone from HR to help advocate could help support the overall success.

Knowing the difference

 At the end of the day, there are many different kinds of both mentorship and sponsorship, and sometimes they overlap in form and function. However, identifying which kind of relationship it is from the outset will help set expectations of ownership and objectives. Generally, with mentorship, the mentee owns the relationship and looks to set goals and next steps; with sponsorship, the executive usually holds a more deliberate role.

Fortunately, there are benefits to both mentorship and sponsorship. Mentorship almost always leads to better communication and increased understanding on both sides; the constant flow of experience and feedback naturally creates opportunities for growth. Sponsorship, on the other hand, supports the notion of intentional allyship, and creates a built-in opportunity for creating an ecosystem of ERG support throughout the organization. Ultimately, it depends on what a person or group is looking to achieve.

Matthew Coons is the Diversity & Inclusion Program Manager at Xero

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