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What is Sponsorship?

Updated: Sep 16, 2020

Written by Grace Oliver MS4 and Dr. Lexie Mannix

One of the most common themes in advice for career advancement these days is “find a mentor.” The fun part is that we are rarely told how to find a mentor, why we need mentors, or what role mentors are supposed to play in our careers. In addition to the lack of direction regarding mentorship, when you start to research “what is mentorship”, it becomes clear that there are several limitations to the benefits of this popularized mentor-mentee relationship.   

A 2010 Harvard Business Review article describes how women often have multiple mentors, and yet they still don’t get the same benefits that men do in terms of tangible career improvements. To see results the key may be more than mentorship, it may be sponsorship. There is quite a bit of scholarship regarding the sponsor-sponsee relationship. In this article series, we are going to give a crash course in sponsorship for women at all stages of medical training.

In Part 1 of this 4-part series, we are going to first discuss what a sponsor is, and how sponsorship is different than mentorship.

So first: what is a sponsor?

“A sponsor is an individual who is committed to the development of a program, project, or individual… Sponsors use their influence in a field to make mentees more visible… Sponsors risk their reputations when recommending junior colleagues… Sponsors may not be directly visible to the mentee; that is, mentees may not know when sponsors have supported them… They use their position to grow the field and pipeline of talent…” (Chopra, Arora, & Saint, 2018).

Chopra et al. do an excellent job here summarizing sponsorship. They discuss how sponsors use their influence to make thing happen, including developing, recommending, and promoting their junior colleagues. Sponsors use THEIR power to increase the power of someone else, by providing them with an opportunity.

Sponsorship and mentorship are two fundamentally different relationships.  According to Meyer, differences between mentorship and sponsorship include the tangibility of the relationship outcome- “while mentorships tend to be more ideological and educational, sponsorship involves concrete action on both sides” (Meyer, 2018). The sponsorship

relationship results in concrete actions and tangible results for both parties including promotions, presentations, publications and other career advancing opportunities.

Below is a table of examples of different actions performed by a mentor vs. a sponsor:

Sponsors perform the act of sponsorship by creating opportunities for their sponsee.

It “has to do with fighting to get somebody a promotion, mentioning their name in an appointments meeting, and making sure that the person that you’re sponsoring gets the next assignment, and gets visible and developmental assignments”  (Ibarra, 2010). Sponsors are individuals who support their sponsee in countless arenas by increasing their visibility and calling attention to their skills.

Hewlett discusses this relationship: “Sponsors advocate on their protégé’s behalf, connecting them to important players and assignments. In doing so, they make themselves look good. And precisely because sponsors go out on a limb, they expect stellar performance and loyalty” (Hewlett, 2013). This relationship is more transactional than a mentor-mentee relationship. Because of the inherently risky nature of the sponsorship relationship, “sponsors pursue high-potential individuals that will not disappoint when given the opportunity” (Chopra et al., 2018). For the sponsorship relationship to work, the sponsee must produce and must live up to, if not surpass, the sponsors endorsement.

Another large difference between mentorship and sponsorship is the status of the professional sponsor. As Ibarra states “a mentor could be your direct boss. It could be anywhere in the hierarchy. A sponsor has to be highly placed” (Ibarra, 2010). Not only does sponsorship require the sponsor to be in a position of power, “sponsorship requires senior leaders to risk their reputations by using their influence to provide high-profile opportunities that their mentees would otherwise not have” (Patton et al., 2017).  Sponsorship puts the sponsor’s name on the line, as much, if not more, than the sponsee’s name. The sponsor has political and social collateral that they could lose in the setting of the sponsee’s failure.

The literature has found that sponsorship relationships are especially important for women. It has been suggested that “female mentees should actively seek sponsorship from individuals such as a division chief, a department chair, or a dean early in their academic career” (Chopra et al., 2018). The authors allude to the importance of females finding sponsorship early in their career--including listing possible individuals to reach out to. In the current environment, the leadership roles suggest by Chopra et al. are likely to be filled with men. According to the AAMC, in 2013 females compromised only 15% of department chairs and 16% of deans at US medical schools (Lautenberger, Dandar, & Raezer, 2014). These data mean that, in this day in age, women who receive sponsorship will likely be sponsored by men.

Now that we all know WHAT sponsorship is, in Part 2 we will discuss the value of sponsorship and what it can do, especially for women’s careers in medicine. In the meantime, think about what role sponsorship has had in your own career. Have you had a sponsor before? Have you acted as someone else’s sponsor?


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