The Difference Sponsorship Makes

Recognize that mentorship is important, but it takes sponsorship to help others rise to the top.

Opening The Door

For many people, the difference between advancing in one’s career or not depends on having a sponsor.

This was true even for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was born in 1933, a time when women were treated very differently from men. She was one of nine women admitted to Harvard Law School in her year out of an incoming class of 500 students. Upon her arrival, a dean asked her why she was “taking the place of a man.” Despite this chilly reception, Ginsburg excelled at law school, becoming the first woman to serve on the prestigious Harvard Law Review. She later transferred to Columbia Law School and graduated at the top of her class.

Despite these accomplishments, no one was willing to hire Ginsburg after she graduated. In 1959, neither law firms nor judges would hire women, believing them to not be as committed to their careers as men. Ginsburg was finally hired as a judicial clerk only when one of her former law professors, Gerald Gunther, stepped in and threatened a judge that he would never send another student to them again unless they hired Ginsburg.

Objectively, Ginsburg had all the characteristics of having exceptional talent. And yet, it wasn’t until a highly influential male sponsor spoke up on her behalf that others were willing to “take a chance” on her.

It is rare for sponsors to threaten their contacts in this way. And yet, it is precisely that kind of support – the explicit overriding of other people’s preferences – that enabled (and continues to enable) many leaders from marginalized groups to advance.

Another prominent example comes from Kenneth Frazier, former CEO of Merck, who described how, early in his career as a lawyer in Philadelphia, one of the law firm’s most prominent clients asked that Frazier be taken off a case due to his race. While it would have been easier for the firm’s partners to acquiesce to the request of one of their top clients, they instead told the client that they would rather lose the client’s business than remove Frazier. Frazier went on to become a partner in the firm before being hired away by Merck.

Frazier has had other sponsors as well. For instance, Frazier recalls a fateful day when then-CEO of Merck, Roy Vagelos, called Frazier to his office. There, Vagelos told Frazier, “‘I’m two years from retirement. I can’t seem to get my colleagues, my white colleagues, to promote any African Americans. Guess what, I’m going to make your career. I’m going to take a lawyer [Frazier]… [and] I’m going to give him a job in the business and I’m going to mentor him.'”

Vagelos pulled Frazier from the legal department to head public affairs and later, to help run global operations. As Frazier put it, Vagelos believed in Frazier’s ability to learn and therefore strategically placed him in positions where he would be able to observe the firm’s operations, giving him a broader view of the business. Here, Vagelos both mentored Frazier – by providing Frazier with guidance on what career moves to make – and as a sponsor – by using his power and influence to put Frazier into positions where he could get the experience he needed.

Ginsburg and Frazier were only able to rise in their respective fields because they had sponsors – in addition to mentors – who were willing to open doors and to keep those doors open for them.

Why Does A Difference Matter?

Mentorship and sponsorship are both critical forms of professional support, but many people conflate the two, likely because most mentors also tend to be sponsors. This is problematic because while both are important, mentorship, and sponsorship influence different outcomes, which have implications for people’s career advancement.

Mentors act on mentees. Mentors help mentees become better performers by giving them feedback and coaching them through tricky work situations. They also encourage mentees and act as a role model for them so that their mentees feel more confident at work. Successful mentors help their mentees become high performers who feel satisfied and empowered at work.

In contrast, sponsors act on other people, not their proteges. Sponsors already believe their proteges to be deserving of recognition, and their role is to ensure that other people (an external audience) know about and think as well of their proteges as they themselves do. Sponsors also push other people to act in ways that benefit the protégé, such as advocating for their promotions or for raises. Successful sponsors help their proteges be recognized for their high performance and potential.

In a nutshell, mentorship outcomes are tied to people’s subjective experiences at work. Sponsorship outcomes, on the other hand, are tied to people’s objective outcomes at work.

Why does this difference matter? Consider: what would Ginsberg’s career have looked like if her professors did all they could to train her to be one of their top students, but then sat by the sidelines when no company or judge was willing to hire her? What would Frazier’s career have looked like if the law firm partners privately encouraged Frazier, but publicly acquiesced every time a client objected to having Frazier be assigned to their case? Or if Vagelos had given Frazier advice on how to navigate his career at Merck without also ensuring that Frazier would be chosen to lead different divisions?

We might have the best mentors in the world and still not advance, because in the end, it takes sponsorship to rise to the very top. 

Although Ginsberg and Frazier are a woman and non-White person, respectively, the reality is that women and non-White persons continue to not to receive as much sponsorship as men and Whites. For instance, recent research on entrepreneurial referrals – referrals being a form of sponsorship – finds that men are less willing to refer women to a potential client than they are to refer men. This is especially the case when the potential client in question is a man or in a male-dominated field. What this finding suggests is that people in positions of power are not always willing to sponsor women protégés not because they themselves are biased, but because they worry about how their sponsorship behavior might impact their personal relationships with their contacts. So, if the contact doesn’t explicitly express support for gender equity or a desire for more diverse referrals, most people in a position to sponsor will opt to go with a “safe” choice: the man or White protégé, thereby contributing to inequities in sponsorship that then go on to impact people’s career outcomes.

Here’s the thing: there’s no evidence that recommending a protégé that doesn’t fit the stereotype is actually harmful to sponsors. Put differently, is it the case that men who refer women to potential clients go on to experience personal reputational harms or have worse relationships with those potential clients? As far as I am aware, no such studies have been conducted. If anything, sponsorship is double-edged: it has both the potential to damage relationships between sponsors and external audiences, should the protégé turn out to be a bad bet, and the potential to enhance relationships between sponsors and external audiences. Successful sponsorship also has the potential to enhance the reputation of the sponsor as well, with attendant positive consequences. For instance, managers who develop a reputation for successfully promoting their subordinates tend to receive more interest overall, and interest especially from high quality workers, than those who don’t promote their subordinates. Why? Because once you have a reputation as someone who is interested in helping others succeed, people want to work with you.  

As managers and leaders, we should want people to succeed. One way to help them do so is by mentoring them, but our support shouldn’t stop there. We should sponsor them as well. But another thing we need to be mindful of is whether we are sponsoring equitably. Who are we willing to promote to others? Are there other people who have the same level of performance but whom we haven’t thought to sponsor? Why is that? 

It’s time that we consider these questions more closely.

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