November 19, 2019 Practice Points

More Than a Mentor: Learn How to Sponsor Your Colleagues

Mentorship is like the voice in the cockpit giving flying lessons; sponsorship is the jet fuel that propels the plane to new heights.

By Carla Varriale
Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.
―E.M. Forster, Howards End

When you are evaluating how to support your colleagues, don’t conflate mentorship and sponsorship. These distinct tools to advance another person’s personal and professional development have unique benefits. Both mentorship and sponsorship are ways to connect meaningfully with lawyers at a pivotal point in their careers, whether at a starting point, a transition point, or a “make it or break it” point. The hallmarks of mentorship include guidance, support, and advice. I think of a mentor as a sounding board. In contrast, the hallmarks of sponsorship include active advocacy and boosting another person’s abilities to others (this, of course, presumes the sponsored party is both capable of and prepared for advancement). Consequently, sponsorship arguably has the ability to be a more potent driver of a woman’s advancement than mentorship. If mentorship is like the voice in the cockpit giving flying lessons, sponsorship is the jet fuel that propels the plane to new heights.

A recent Harvard Business Review article proclaimed that women tend to be over-mentored and under-sponsored and that this is an impediment to women’s advancement to leadership positions. Sponsorship is particularly critical for traditionally underrepresented people in the workplace, such as women, people of color, and LGBTQI persons, because they may not have the traditional networks available to boost their work or suggest them for opportunities and advancement.

If, as explained in the Harvard Business Review article, a sponsor is simply a person who has power and will use it for you, there is no one way to be a sponsor. Sponsorship does not necessarily require that you are a manager or in a position to advance a sponsored party for a promotion or a pay raise, although that is an obvious form of sponsorship. That’s a misconception and, I would argue, too constricted a definition of what sponsorship truly is. Distilled to its essence, sponsorship consists of publicizing or promoting another. It has been described as simply as “raising their name.”

If the idea of sponsorship is expanded to this fundamental description, there are numerous opportunities to be a sponsor for other lawyers. For example, sponsorship includes suggesting a sponsored party for a significant assignment, brief-writing opportunity, speaking engagement, oral argument, key deposition, article coauthoring opportunity, or committee position. These everyday acts of connection and advocacy are sponsorship, too. And creating opportunities for increased visibility and leadership can ultimately lead to the holy grail of sponsorship: a coveted or strategic promotion and enhanced pay.

Our notions of sponsorship can, therefore, be disrupted and expanded to be more accessible for people who aspire to be sponsors but do not believe they have sufficient influence to do so. Here’s how:

Become a lateral sponsor. Lateral sponsorship is cross-selling skills and competencies. If sponsorship can be defined as simply “saying her name,” then promoting a sponsored party’s skill set across your network is sponsorship. Whenever we promote, advertise, and amplify another person’s skills and abilities, we are being a sponsor.

Become a stealth sponsor. Unlike the mentoring relationship, sponsoring does not require that a sponsored party know that you are sponsoring him or her. A sponsor need not be known or “seen” by the sponsored party. Much of a sponsor’s work is behind the scenes, in rooms and places the sponsored party is not. Because a sponsor’s advocacy for another person is focused on making third parties aware of the sponsored party, the sponsored party need not know that you are taking an active interest in his or her advancement.

Become connected by becoming a connector. Sponsorship is a multiplier. Sponsorship generates opportunities for both the sponsor and the sponsored party. In connecting a deserving person with opportunities within your own network or in giving the sponsored party a “leg up,” you are growing your network. By connecting a sponsored party with opportunities for visibility and advancement, you are providing something of value to the sponsored party (who may not even be aware of your sponsorship), your network, your firm, your legal department, or your organization. Beyond that, being a person who links others to opportunities for growth and advancement naturally fosters your own sense of connectedness and commitment to your work and your profession. 

Carla Varriale is a partner at Havkins Rosenfeld Ritzert & Varriale LLP in their New York office.

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