Mentoring vs. Sponsoring: What’s the Difference?

September 11, 2023

Most people have heard of “mentoring” and know it is a way they can help grow their careers by seeking out the advice and support of a more seasoned member of their field.

A newer buzz word in employment circles is “sponsoring” and fewer people know exactly what that means and how it differs from “mentoring.”

We asked two long-time managers and an educator in respiratory care — Intermountain Health System Director of Research for Respiratory Care Kim Bennion, MsHS, RRT, CHC, FAARC; Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital Director of Respiratory Care Gboly Harris, BSRT, RRT, RRT-NPS, RRT-SDS, RPSGT; and Rush University Professor Ellen A. Becker, PhD, RRT, RRT-NPS, RPFT, AE-C, FAARC — to explain these career-building tools and how respiratory therapists can best take advantage of them.

Most people have heard of mentoring but tell us how you would define it.

Kim Bennion: Mentoring is generally requested by the individual, who identifies an area they would like to work on and finds someone they feel exemplifies expertise in the area. The mentee then requests an initial meeting. The arrangement should have clearly defined objectives, a regular cadence of “touch in” meetings, and a defined date of completion.

Globy Harris: Mentoring is the opportunity to be of service to another person. I will describe it more as a supportive relationship between a more experienced person (mentor) and a less experienced person (mentee). Ensuring accountability of set goals for personal and professional growth is key, but mentoring can take various forms, such as one-on-one, in-person, or virtual.

Ellen Becker: Mentoring is a structured process of guiding an individual’s development. Mentoring goes beyond coaching another person to learn a skill. It involves looking into the future, encompasses a larger context to include both work and personal life goals, and requires a longer-term intervention than coaching.

Fewer have heard of sponsoring in relation to employee development. How would you define sponsoring?

Kim Bennion: Sponsoring occurs when an existing leader, recognized in the organization as such, identifies an individual who displays leadership qualities, knowledge of the job, and potential for advancement. The leader provides “stretch” project opportunities, promotes the work of the employee to senior leaders, and on-boards the employee to the nuances of various aspects of becoming a part of the leadership team (e.g., buzz words to avoid, succinct presentation of novel ideas).

Gboly Harris: Sponsoring is an active and influential form of mentorship. The sponsor advocates for their protégés by providing opportunities for personal and professional growth and advancement, leveraging their influence to assist them to succeed. Sponsors are well-connected to help champion their protégés’ careers and actively promote their visibility and potential.

Ellen Becker: Sponsors help protégés identify and explore new opportunities. A key attribute of sponsoring is that it involves connecting protégés to external networks and strategizing a path for new opportunities. Sponsors also publicly advocate for protégés to help them land their next job.

What do you believe are the key differences between these two career building tools and why?

Kim Bennion: With mentoring, the mentee is seeking the mentor for targeted assistance with a clearly defined objective(s). Sponsoring is not something a mentee asks for directly. A mentor talks with you. A sponsor talks positively about you to others in key positions.

Gboly Harris: Mentoring is more private guidance while sponsorship is more public facing.

Ellen Becker: Sponsoring is a much heavier lift for both the protégé and the sponsor. A sponsor connects people to external networks and advocates for the protégé. To win a sponsor’s confidence, the protégé needs to demonstrate dependability, skills, integrity, and loyalty. Sponsors need to be familiar enough with protégés to stake their own reputation on the protégés’ talents. Mentoring focuses more on developing skills to prepare for the job role. A strong mentoring relationship can turn into sponsorship.

How can respiratory therapists find mentors to assist them with their career development and why should they take the time to do it?

Kim Bennion: Finding a mentor is the easy part. Keep your eyes open for someone you feel has created success in their own career. Determine what it is that you feel makes this individual successful, and approach them with what you want to learn to develop. None of us just falls into success. Most often, getting to where you desire to be requires strategic planning. Any true leader welcomes the opportunity to assist others on their career path.

Gboly Harris: Respiratory therapists can find mentors by identifying someone that has the leadership skill sets that would help them grow and looking for someone with the knowledge and skills that helps professional and personal development. It is also an opportunity for career guidance and advice to help the mentee navigate their career paths. The respiratory therapist that is interested in being mentored needs to have a clear goal and understand the expectation of the relationship.

Ellen Becker: Respiratory therapists should engage with mentors to learn from the experience of others. Yes, you could run every life experiment on your own, but why make all the mistakes that others made for you? Mentors are everywhere. You may find one in your own department, at a volunteer event for respiratory health advocacy, or through local, state, and national respiratory care meetings. Take a chance and introduce yourself to someone! Be prepared to the let the individual know the types of growth opportunities you want. If they lack the skills to mentor you, chances are they know someone who can. Lastly, the mentor should not be in your reporting line. Protégés need to be completely vulnerable with their mentor, thus the best mentoring experience occurs with persons who are not your supervisor.

How can they best take advantage of a sponsorship and why should they do it if they get the chance?

Kim Bennion: If you feel a leader is promoting you, step to the plate and swing! Ask questions. Finish assignments ahead of time, exceeding expectations. Take calculated risks, and keep an open and honest relationship with your sponsor. Pivotal at this time is innovation in health care. Study journals to determine best practices, develop ideas to uniquely improve practice and patient care, measure and publish what you do, and never take the credit yourself but always defer to the team. In doing so, you step from a team manager coordinating shift/department work, to an innovative leader others want to follow. This is something deliverable your sponsor can use to promote you to executive leadership.

Gboly Harris: In order to take advantage of sponsorship, it depends on developing a strong relationship and trust. As the trust grows, the sponsor looks to helping the protégé take advantage of their professional networks through the sponsor’s connections by sharing and expanding their network.

Ellen Becker: Again, sponsorship is a longer-term relationship because a strong track-record of accomplishments is needed. Start with mentorship for the fastest upward mobility and grow the mentorship into sponsorship.

In order for mentorships and sponsorships to work, you have to have engagement from upper-level staff. What would you like to say to these folks about why they should get involved?

Kim Bennion: It’s no secret that both mentoring and sponsoring take time; however, if an individual in a leadership position said they did not have time, I would honestly question if that person was the right one for the position of leadership they currently hold. My greatest satisfaction has come from looking over some of my organization’s leadership members in whom I was blessed to recognize talent and promote/sponsor them. Leaders grow and promote others! As a person gains experience and grows, so does the team! Dr. Wess Stafford said it best: “While changed circumstances sometimes change people, changed people always change circumstances.”

Gboly Harris: Mentoring and sponsoring are crucial for guiding the next generation of leaders. By investing in mentorship and sponsorship relationships, we are able to cultivate a leadership pipeline, develop personal and professional growth, and drive the success of our respiratory care profession. I encourage each of us to embrace the possibility that mentoring and sponsoring allows us to empower the next generation of leaders to reach their full potential.

Ellen Becker: Sponsorship is very rewarding for seasoned professionals. It is hard to effectively sponsor a person without having significant organizational and professional clout. Sponsoring others is a way to give back to those who supported you along the way. If someone is not engaged, they will be a lousy sponsor or mentor and should be avoided. Rather, expand your network and find someone who has an interest in helping others.

These insights from Kim Bennion, Gboly Harris, and Ellen Becker go a long way to helping us all better understand mentorship and sponsorship.

But how do these tactics play out in real life? Kim Bennion shares a story from her own career as a great example.

When she started thinking about retiring from her position as system administrative director of respiratory care at Intermountain Health a few years ago, she was asked who could take on the position when she left. The answer was easy, because she had actively been sponsoring one of her employees for a position just like the one she was getting ready to leave for years.

“I made certain to share successes we had as we worked together, using her name to let executive leaders know of her successes as the years passed,” said Bennion. “When I was asked directly who I would hire into my position, without hesitation, I said her name and then touted very briefly three specific strengths that made her uniquely qualified for the job.”

Bennion is proud to say that this former protégé is now the system administrative director of respiratory care. “She has taken my old job and far exceeded expectations,” she said.

Heading to the New Era

Elevate | Engage | Advocate | Educate