Sponsorship vs mentorship: How business leaders can level the playing field for ethnic minority individuals.

08 July 2021

Sponsorship and mentorship in the workplace are vital in supporting the long-term career development of diverse talent. With mentoring, mentees are given the opportunity to gain new skills and perspectives and can set and work towards tangible goals that directly enhance their professional development. Mentoring is also mutually beneficial, as a mentor is provided with an opportunity to gain knowledge and perspectives that may otherwise not be immediately afforded to them.

While mentors can be positioned at any level of the business, sponsors are C-suite and senior leaders and sponsorship is when these senior leaders leverage their influence and platform to advocate for promotions, pay rises, new projects and opportunities for high potential employees within the business.

For organisations who are serious about levelling the playing field for their employees, they should embed both mentorship and sponsorship as viable career development opportunities for their team, paying particular attention to the positive impact this can have on underrepresented groups.

How can leaders invest in sponsorship to level the playing field?

It is no doubt that the events of the last year have been a pivotal moment for many businesses and business leaders across the UK. We can no longer ignore the systemic barriers and discrimination that impedes certain groups from progressing. It is crucial for companies to take a stand against racial inequality and hold up a mirror to themselves to inspect how diverse and inclusive they truly are.

Despite sponsorships clear benefits in elevating diverse talent and supporting their career advancement, there is a disparity amongst the groups of people who often receive sponsorship opportunities and those who do not. Women and individuals from ethnic minority groups  are generally over mentored, which is the basis that knowledge and experience is shared between a senior leader and mentee, and under sponsored, which is effectively a senior leader using their power to elevate others.

The Race Matters research shows that a shared characteristic of those who advance the furthest is having a strong network of sponsors and mentors who nurture their professional development, therefore it is vital that both of these practices are embedded in tandem to ensure optimum career advancement for everyone

To make genuine change, business leaders must actively work to level the playing field for all employees and be prepared to advocate and support them to help pave a clear path to success. Sponsorship relationships have the potential to be long-lasting and advantageous for both parties in personal and professional capacities.

Be aware of your biases

We all have biases and in relation to both sponsorship and mentorship it is vital for leaders to be aware and work to make decisions that are fair to everyone. For instance, mentors and sponsors may be more likely to choose employees who they share similar experiences with to actively support.

While there are some benefits here, senior leaders are still largely white, straight men therefore if we view mentoring and sponsorship through this lens, only a specific group of people are likely to be supported. Instead, senior leaders who are looking to sponsor should consider elevating high potential talent within their organisation that they may not have an immediate affinity with, which can also be a learning experience for the sponsor themselves.

In using their platform and network, sponsors can become active allies for their diverse talent and spearhead opportunities that create a more inclusive and nurturing workplace.

Understand context

In order to be able to effectively support diverse talent, perspective sponsors and mentors should put in the work to educate themselves on potential challenges that diverse talent can face in the workplace.

It can be useful for organisations to implement training for senior leaders in sponsorship to understand the varying needs of employees at different stages of their careers and the gender and/or racial obstacles they may face. For instance, INvolve provide toolkits on sponsorship and trainings for line managers and senior leaders to enhance their sponsorship skills.

Commend sponsorship

The sponsorship of an employee has many benefits to both parties, and in the fight for racial equality, business leaders should encourage more sponsorship of individuals from underrepresented groups to work together collectively to help catapult more employees into senior positions.

Inclusion through mentoring and sponsorship across all levels of seniority in workplaces needs to be recognised as a critical part of business success; there is still much we can do. Both sponsorship and mentorship can provide effective routes towards meaningful progress for employees’ careers and the journey to inclusive workplaces. As business leaders make the decision to implement these programmes aimed at advancing the professional success of all, further diversity on the career ladder can be achieved.