Sponsors, Mentors, & Their Proteges


In the workplace there is a unique relationship between mentors, sponsors, and their proteges. The parties in this relationship will find it mutually beneficial and each role is very distinct in its function and nature. Yet, the relationships fostered with proteges can often be unfairly exclusive due to antiquated “old boy” concepts, like “it’s not what you do, but who you know”. For minorities or women looking to foster professional relationships that lead to executive sponsorship with C-suite executives, this can be challenging as it is harder to establish these developmental relationships with white counterparts. Let’s explore the differences between each professional relationship and how they impact each other.

What is a Mentor?

Mentors can serve as advisors, teachers, or coaches to an individual in their professional and personal endeavors. These relationships are often viewed as mutually beneficial and require time commitment from both individuals. A mentor usually has some degree of expertise in their field or industry and helps the mentee focus on developing skills or talents in order to achieve their career ambitions. The relationship between the mentor and mentee can be had even if they don’t work in the same organization and can build the self-esteem of the mentee.

What is a Sponsor?

A sponsor is a person committed to encouraging, advocating, and creating opportunities for a person to advance on their own behalf. They can help influence a person’s advancement or promotion and often have the objective of talking about their protege directly. Sponsors can have a deeper relationship with their protege and understand their protege’s potential, skills, and capabilities enough to use their own position to help the protege advance. This relationship is usually cultivated over a significant period of time and can help change the trajectory of someone’s career.

The Relationship Between Sponsorships, Mentorships, and Proteges

Many companies have a formal mentoring program but mentorship and sponsorship can happen organically within a workplace. Mentees can often identify a mentor they would like to have a relationship with and seek them out versus a sponsor who often pursues their relationship with a protege and wants to help them advance in their career. Sponsorships typically occur on the executive level of an organization with the sponsor having a personal stake in advancing their proteges career as it reflects well on them.

For women or people of color hoping to have a sponsor in corporate America, this continues to be a struggle as diversity continues to be a “concrete wall” individuals face trying to break in executive leadership. Many executive leaders tend to be white males who sponsor each other and perpetuate the cycle that keeps them in power and prevents real diversity of people and thoughts that can create meaningful change. As people begin to champion racial, gender, and generational bias that occurs on the executive level, we’re beginning to see more companies create sponsorship programs that encourage a fair and equal process that’s not based on familial relationships or friendships.