Sponsorship vs. mentoring

Michael Stefan our consultant managing the role
Posting date: 05 May 2022

While the media has a tendency to portray über-successful figures in business as the solitary, lone-wolf type, they are almost always backed by a team of experienced individuals who provide behind-the-scenes coaching and guidance. And it’s often this coaching and guidance that allow leaders to navigate tumultuous tides and stay the course. In fact, in a review carried out by Stanford University, almost 100% of CEOs reported that they enjoyed the process of receiving coaching and leadership advice. And that can take many forms - guidance, mentoring, sponsorship and even just ad hoc advice.

But what I want to focus on today is what defines a mentor, and what exactly is a sponsor? How do the two coexist, especially with an eye on the insurance industry, and what benefits do they bring to the table?

What is sponsorship?

Sponsors are usually internal, and act as spotlights to attract attention and provide exposure for the high-potential individual they sponsor. Maintaining a singularly focused relationship with the sponsee, sponsors proactively endorse the high-potential individual and work to elevate their position, most frequently for the purpose of promotion.

Defined by Deloitte as the “catalysts of change”, sponsors “commit to focus, plan commitments and communicate as a means of increasing returns from their sponsorship investments.” This often translates to working closely with the sponsored individuals, providing strategic direction and exposing them to invaluable networking opportunities. In short, sponsors open doors and usher you over the threshold.

What is mentoring?

Offering advice and wisdom, mentors have essentially ‘been there, done that’ and can act as invaluable sounding boards during tricky times. Mentors don’t have to be from the same company as the mentee, or even the same industry. The main difference between mentoring and sponsorship is that mentors mainly advise, while sponsors take action. Both can advise on your career path, but typically use different methods to do so.

Benefits of sponsorship & mentoring

A big draw of mentoring is that the individual giving you guidance has often already encountered many of the issues you face, which will allow them to give you insight from the perspective of hindsight. Successful mentorships will also work on skill development and goal achievement, and can support both professionally and on a more personal level.

Leaders who act as a mentor for employees within the same company can create a sense of inclusion and belonging, which can help to enhance retention rates and provide a stronger sense of job satisfaction. In this way, providing mentorship is a form of investment in your own employees and helps you build a ‘people-first’ environment and foster DE&I.

Sponsorship often leads to professional success. Research carried out by author and CEO Sylvia Ann Hewlett, found that sponsorship is a big contributor to professional success, with 70% of sponsored men and 68% of sponsored women being happy with the rate at which they're moving up in their careers, while only 57% of their unsponsored peers say the same.

Sponsorship can also positively impact a sponsee in many different ways. Not only will their efforts be getting noticed and rewarded, but they will also be working on their trust and improving their ability to delegate.

Ultimately, if you’re looking to be the best leader you can be, or want to access the next level of your career, there’s absolutely no reason you need to go it alone. Without the guidance of mentorship, it can be challenging to make difficult decisions. Without the exposure of sponsorship, it can be challenging to find or make the most of career advancement opportunities.

Sponsorship and mentoring in the insurance sector

Within an industry as vast and dynamic as insurance, there’s much scope for mentoring and sponsorship. Whether you’re an experienced professional who knows the industry inside out or you’ve only just begun to hone your craft, the benefits you can gain from guidance still remain relevant.

While some of the best mentor/mentee relationships tend to happen organically over a period of time, the insurance industry is putting more formal mentoring opportunities in place. For example, the Next Generation Insurance Network (NGIN) hosts annual events with the aim of supporting careers, developing relationships and offering networking opportunities.

Aviva has been running a ‘Future Leader Programme’ since 2018, providing two years of training, coaching and mentoring with the aim of developing leadership skills. Mentors working on this programme help participants with specific projects and goals, ultimately getting them boardroom-ready.

And interestingly, insurance giant AXA began a ‘reverse mentoring’ programme back in 2014 in order to accelerate its digital capabilities. The programme saw the more digitally-adept employees mentor senior-level staff in order to embrace the digital transformation. At the end of six sessions, 97% of participants said that they would recommend the programme.

Why you might need both a sponsor & a mentor

There is no ‘either-or’ rule when it comes to getting sponsorship or mentoring in the workplace. Depending on your own unique position and perspective, you could find that either one or both is best for you. Ultimately, both schemes are about seeking out a relationship that will advance and serve your career.

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