A Look at Mentorship, Sponsorship and Allyship
Many organizations I work with pride themselves on having an inclusive culture. But if you asked the people from under-represented and marginalized backgrounds if they viewed the culture in the same way, what would their responses be? The answer is often, it depends. A client I am working with recently initiated a conversation on just this topic with a particular focus on intergenerational inclusivity. But the conversation we had doesn’t just apply to ageism — it is relevant to addressing multiple forms of bias.
The client saw opportunities to incorporate mentorship, sponsorship, and allyship into their cultural and DEI frameworks. As the conversation progressed, I realized we weren’t working from a common understanding of these terms. So I shared a few resources with them that I will also include here.
What is mentorship?
In a mentorship, there is often a mentor and a mentee. (Peer and group mentoring are other options, but not the focus for today!) The mentor has expertise and experience that she is sharing with the mentee. Sometimes, organizational mentorship programs provide a lot of structure from matching mentors and mentees, to providing discussion guides, and even setting a formal timeframe for the mentorship with a beginning and an end. Other mentoring relationships are more organic and can last years through many career and personal transitions. While both parties in the mentorship report learning and growing from the interactions, there can be a sense of hierarchy in a mentoring relationship.
In my client work, I often help people find mentors or be mentors. One example of a classic mentorship relationship was between a sales manager and R&D leader. The goal of the mentorship was to help the less experienced person build their skills by tapping into the experiences and different perspectives of their mentor. As I often see with these relationships, the mentee successfully developed his skills and the mentor benefited from the mentee’s fresh perspective on his career and their shared industry. The mentor was inspired to intentionally develop business acumen skills in female engineers because of conversations she had during the mentorship.
What is sponsorship?
I think of sponsorship as having a close link to advocacy. When someone isn’t in the room, how do you represent their interests and goals? Being a sponsor requires intention and curiosity. Effective sponsors also have influence and visibility within their organizations to successfully advocate on behalf of someone else. Sometimes that influence comes from a C-level title, but it is not necessary if a leader’s voice carries weight with their peers.
Before you can successfully sponsor someone, you need to take the time to understand their interests and aspirations. I have found it is best to have a conversation about being a sponsor before speaking on someone’s behalf. That way you can have more confidence that you are advocating for opportunities that will interest them most and support their goals. Sponsorship can be particularly beneficial for high potential employees who might be overlooked. As you think about who in your organization might benefit from sponsorship, look beyond your own team and also consider whose perspectives are currently missing from critical conversations.
A C-suite executive who I work with goes out of her way to advocate for the careers of women in her organization who have additional potential and are still growing in their careers. She serves as a sponsor by setting up strategic meetings for them, giving them opportunities to share their capabilities in front of other leaders internally and externally, and investing in their development with training and coaching opportunities to accelerate their development.
What is allyship?
There are so many strong definitions and metaphors for allyship available. One common theme of allyship is coming alongside the person you are supporting as they create their own path. Allyship is not about doing to or for. In addition, your role as an ally is to educate yourself about the barriers others are facing and shoulder the weight of those barriers yourself. Allies also step in when they witness biases and discrimination to address the issue. They don’t wait to provide comfort until after the fact, even when speaking out is hard. Being an ally requires self-reflection and an openness to learning which means sometimes getting things wrong.
Another client I am working with is building the skill of finding allies for themself who will speak up on their behalf in meetings or other group situations. This kind of allyship can cover a lot of behaviors from gender (like mansplaining) to ensuring that early career voices have a chance to be heard. We created a tag-team approach where my client would work with a peer to advocate for and support each other’s ideas in meetings. It might sound like “I really like the approach that Emma shared earlier on this same topic” or “When Megan suggested that solution earlier, I really thought it had merit, and I’m glad to hear others building upon her recommendation.” This type of allyship can be a great place to get started and build from.
I am on the journey of allyship alongside BIPOC and LGBTQIIA+ communities as well. My goal is to stay open to new information, particularly resources and experiences shared by DEIB thought leaders with lived experiences of the biases they are talking about, and I share these resources with clients and colleagues who are also committed to educating themselves. My clients are generous with their experiences and questions and we grow together. As a white woman leader, I feel a responsibility to share what I am learning with my peers so that the burden of education and skills development does not fall to those who are already bearing the day-to-day load of ingrained biases. I do this by leading unconscious and beyond bias discussions with clients and I also support BIPOC businesses with pro bono coaching. My future growth as an ally starts from this baseline.
There is no shortage of resources on what it means to be an ally, in particular. Here are a few that I have found particularly helpful:
The Guide to Allyship created by amélie lamont
How to Be an Ally from McLean & Company
I also regularly update my Inclusive Leadership reading list on bookshop.org with books and workbooks that expand my thinking and that my clients have found useful in their growth as allies.
This article was also published on Medium.com.