Executives have long turned to mentoring programs to develop promising employees and prepare them for leadership roles. Individuals seek mentors to advance their careers.
With more older workers staying in the workforce than ever before, younger workers have a large selection of potential mentors. But there may be fewer paths to advancement as senior workers postpone retirement. At the same time, there has been a growing awareness that access to mentors does not necessarily lead to promotions.
All this adds credence to the concept of sponsorship as opposed to mentoring. Sponsorship can be defined as a mentoring relationship in which sponsors go beyond providing advice and counsel to actively advocate for the promotion of those they mentor.
Women are more likely than men to receive mentoring, yet mentoring does not appear to provide the same career benefits to women as it does to men, according to a study from Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that focuses on women at work. This discrepancy may arise because fewer women have senior executives as mentors and because men are more actively sponsored by their mentors than are women.
These findings indicate that an increase in the number of active mentors may not necessarily lead to faster career progression unless opportunities are available and mentors take an active advocacy role. Another Catalyst report on the importance of sponsorship shows that formal mentoring programs seem to be more effective at improving the promotion rates of women than informal mentoring relationships brokered by individual employees. And sponsoring relationships are beneficial to those being sponsored as well as to sponsors, who receive feedback, enhance their skills and gain company knowledge. All these developments, in turn, benefit their organizations.
More senior executives are becoming aware that sponsorship programs boost the number of women and possibly minorities who advance to senior executive positions. But if women entering their prime working years grow frustrated with their lack of professional advancement, they may look for alternatives to supplement or even replace traditional mentoring relationships.
Instead of pinning their hopes on one or two influential mentors or even sponsors, these individuals may instead choose to build a strong network of peer advisors and advocates using social media, for instance. Though this may not take the place of a mentor or a sponsor on the senior executive team, a vibrant network or following may become an alternative route to influence and opportunity.
In designing future leadership development strategies, it is critical to recognize that formal mentoring—and especially sponsorship programs—seems to result in better outcomes for women and other underrepresented groups. HR professionals also will need to deal with barriers that block promising future leaders from advancing, such as low turnover at the top, industry slowdowns and widespread talent shortages. In addition, HR managers can leverage social technologies to engage employees at all levels, giving employees with the best ideas opportunities to shine.
The author is manager of the Workplace Trends and Forecasting program at SHRM.