Why Mentorship Needs To Move Toward Sponsorship In 2021

Career Advice
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Tennile Cooper

We won't say this out loud, but underemployment could stem from a lack of sponsorship. And for anyone wondering, a sponsor is someone who is: " Personally vested in the upward movement and professional development of their protégé." (leader's edge)

When I decided to return to the workforce after five years of self-employment, my pivot from social service to a marketing career took me a full year to secure a new job, Oct 2018 to Oct 2019. Out of the 108 positions I applied to (oh yes, I kept track), the opportunities that took me to the next level were when someone vouched for my accomplishments and advocated on my behalf. It was no different when I got promoted to a management role within a year. An informal mentoring program may have laid the groundwork, but sponsorship was the rocket fuel to my career growth.

So, if I must say it out loud, formal programs for mentorship are not enough anymore.

When it comes to employee mentorship and career development, HR Executive Tanya Sinclair, the Chief People Officer at Toronto Artscape is also starting to see a levelling-up of mentorship towards sponsorship.

"Mentorship continues to have value in the workplace. It enables relationship-building and sharing of insights while deepening the level of understanding and a sense of purpose for both the mentee and the mentor. Given the needs of today’s diverse workforce, mentors will need to evolve from a passive role of camaraderie to the action-oriented realm of sponsorship for their mentees. For marginalized and racialized employees, sponsorship is especially needed. With sponsorship, the stakes are higher. It goes a step further than mentoring—the sponsor now has to proactively advocate for the individual and boldly wield their privilege, power, and network to promote and help advance a talented professional."

People with mentors perform better, advance in their careers faster, are more involved in company culture, and even experience more work-life satisfaction. And mentors benefit, too. After all, “to teach is to learn twice.” Despite all these benefits, and 76% of working professionals believing that a mentor is important to growth, more than 54% do not have such a mentoring relationship. (hbr.org)

Throughout my job hunt, I'd ask my peers and friends to either recommend a role to me with a name attached, or have informal conversations and check-ins about company insights and opportunities. Many obliged, and some politely declined. If you can't name a time when someone helped you to reach your full potential in your career, you can either blame it on short-term memory or you're an ideal candidate to become a mentor. The feeling of having to take this journey alone should never be an option.

"The power of just one mentorship session can completely change the course of one’s career," declared Danica S. Nelson, a Sr. Product Marketing Manager at Shopify.

"Sometimes mentees just need a gentle nudge in the right direction, for someone to tell them they believe in them, or to simply hear the story of someone 'like them' who’s accomplished what they also desire. Mentoring Black women has been especially rewarding for me, as I truly believe representation is important. I, myself, would not have made it this far in the field of Marketing and Communications had I not had discussions as a mentee with women who looked like me in the industry. 'We lift while we climb' is one of my personal mantras."

Danica, who mentors at Humber College as an Industry Liaison, shared a few of her follow-up notes that have made her tear ducts watery. "As a direct result of our conversations, folks have demanded raises, landed dream roles, started nurturing their personal brands, and more."  

Without mentorship, I could not have seen my own blindspots and proactively work toward advancing my skills, education, and experience. I have had many mentors throughout my life, formal and informal.

However, when there was a formal process in place—I received the most benefits. For one, it's tracked. Like the 108 jobs I applied to a year ago, due to the data collected throughout the process, it made it easier for me to identify my errors and pivot quicker to a more favourable result. With formal mentorship, you set S.M.A.R.T. goals. It points out what you should include or eliminate from your resume, the exact course(s) you should take to increase desirability to a company, insider tips from the industry you're tapping into, and what kind of team members they're looking for.

When I actively sought out a mentor within my network, it was extremely intentional, and it was also a two-way connection. I sought more to provide value than to absorb knowledge, and that's when I was introduced to the power of sponsorship. My career journey included being named for paid consulting opportunities, speaking engagements and yes, job promotions, and I have done the same for others.

Sponsorship is a proactive approach, it's a step up from mentorship. It requires the mentee to highlight their skills and accomplishments, enabling the mentor to advocate on their behalf. The work doesn't end at advisement. In order for sponsorship to work, both parties must follow through. Even if all mentors are not sponsors, sponsorship should be the benchmark (something you can measure growth from) —if we want to truly build out a robust mentorship program.

Now, how does a company implement an employee mentorship program with leader buy-in that promotes sponsorship? Well, it could be a process that is a lot smoother than you think!

1) Have a formalized structure in place that helps introduce the program to new employees and more tenured team members

2) Automate peer to leader introductions with an employee development software like Ten Thousand Coffees that employs a smart-matching algorithm to remove bias and reduce workload.

3) Foster a corporate culture that rewards initiative, promotes talented employees, and plays an active part in employee retention.

“Employee mentorship is not only about give and take, but it is also about transformation, adaptation and evolution, which is then reflected in one's personal brand and the company.” Melloney Campbell, 2019 Startup Canada National Award Winner and mentor for entrepreneurs.

Since we no longer have the luxury of bumping into co-workers in the hallways or by the water cooler (hello COVID-19), establishing organic relationships can be a harder task and we'll have to exercise our communication skills. Therefore, employee mentorship programs can help foster and grow meaningful relationships. And even though most of us are probably self-diagnosed with Zoom fatigue by now, blocking out regular mentorship time slots into our calendars should become a part of every company's employee engagement strategy. Not only will this help to improve morale, but it will also result in higher retention of top talent, and increased engagement from new hires.

According to the Harvard Business Review, sponsors have three primary responsibilities: to believe in and go out on a limb for their protégé; to use their organizational capital, both publicly and behind closed doors, to push for their protégé's promotion, and to provide their protégé with “air cover” for risk-taking. Yet only 27% of their survey respondents who identified as sponsors said they advocate for their protégé's promotion. (hbr.org)

That number needs to improve exponentially. It can start with implementing an employee mentorship program that promotes advancement, or recommending a talented professional in your network for an opportunity.

See how Ten Thousand Coffees can help you and your business offer not only mentorship opportunities, but also sponsorship opportunities to your community. Get in touch with one of our experts today!

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