Mentorship vs. Sponsorship: What Do These Words Really Mean?

Posted on Mar 9, 2016


When we think about the words mentorship vs. sponsorship, we find these big buzz words being used globally in HR, diversity and inclusion, and many of the women’s initiatives going on. But what do they really mean?

It’s interesting being asked to come in and speak on these topics. I find myself going back, as always, to the heart of the matter and saying, “I can’t come speak on something I don’t feel passionate about. So what’s underneath both these words?”

I took the time to do my research on both “mentorship” and “sponsorship”, and I found that both of those words have become very vanilla. I think we use them frequently, but really don’t understand:

  • The power of these words
  • What they mean
  • What they look like on a daily, ongoing basis

As leaders, we need to embrace the ideas of “What does it mean to help others? How can I be a mentor? What does it mean to truly be a sponsor?” It is not just for women, and it is not just for diversity. It is men and women. Everyone.

Allow me to break it down.


When we think about “mentorship”, it is simply being able to have wisdom, to share with another. It doesn’t mean you have to be in a bilateral or vertical reporting relationship of any type. It doesn’t mean you have to be in a position that is higher than someone else. To truly be a mentor means you have walked in shoes that your mentee aspires to walk in. Maybe you’ve been down the same path in the corporate world. Maybe you work in completely different organizations. We need to remember that mentorship is not always internal to a single organization. Some of the greatest wisdom, ideas, and mindsharing happen when people from different organizations are brought together.

If you are looking for mentorship, do you know what you are looking for? It is really important to know if you are looking for someone who was walked in your shoes or if you are simply looking for wisdom and guidance. The sharing of wisdom is a big piece to mentorship. Mentorship is as much giving as it is receiving. And if you are looking to have a mentor, I always suggest having a group of mentors. Maybe one is a friend who is completely unrelated to your work. Maybe someone else is a former boss or colleague in an industry that you still want to keep your toes wet. Mentor, again, is more of a partnership. But look as a mentor as somebody that you can give and share wisdom with.


“Sponsorship” is a big world, especially the higher you go within the corporate ladder. A sponsor is a true champion and ambassador. She is in the boardroom waving your flag; she is your number one fan and advocate; she believes in you and fights for you when you are not in the room.

If you are ready to reach the next level in your organization, it is time to find a sponsor. Someone who believes in you. Someone who has seen and experienced your success. Someone who has seen and experienced your failure and seen you pull yourself back up. A sponsor cannot be your advocate unless they truly know who you are in your successes and failures. A sponsor needs to know “Who are you when faced with adversity? Do you get strong? Do you get better or do you get bitter?” They need to believe you have the qualities to be an asset and a leader in the good times and the bad.

If you are looking for someone to be your sponsor, look at who has been in your world long enough to see you fall and survive. Because true leaders have all failed. They differentiate themselves by how they pick themselves up and continue.

The other word of wisdom for seeing a sponsor is to not ask someone to be your advocate if you are not clear on where you want to go. No one can help you reach success if you don’t get clear on what you want. What do you want your professional world and your personal world to look like? In 12 months? 3 years? 5 years? A true sponsor that is going to be your advocate needs to know who you are as a person and specifics on where you want to go.

I hope this has helped provide clarity around mentorship and sponsorship. I would love to create a forum and opportunity to hear some success stories, trials, and feedback within the world of mentorship vs. sponsorship. Are you looking for a mentor or a sponsor? Or are you looking to give back? Let me know in the comments or on my website,