Leveling Up, 20th Post Corollary: Mentors and Sponsors

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In this post from two weeks ago, we talked about an important leveling-up skill: getting mentors.

There’s a potential objection to getting mentors. The objection comes from the idea that mentorship does not correlate to career success. Instead, sponsorship correlates to career success.

What’s the difference between mentorship and sponsorship?

  • Mentorship describes offering advice and support directly to someone (a mentee) to advance their career.
  • Sponsorship describes advocating on behalf of someone (a protegé) to other people to secure promotions, raises, and other opportunities for the protegé.

I have reservations about the career advice connected to these terms.

When folks say that sponsors correlate with career success and mentors do not, they’re usually referring to something they read online that cites Sylvia Ann Hewlett. She talks about sponsorship in articles for the Harvard Business Review (here and here) as well as the New York Times (here). Her flagship book on the topic is called Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career

forget a mentor

The zeitgeist around the idea of ditching mentors for sponsors draws further fuel from LinkedIn posts about “How to find a sponsor.” And y’all, I have reservations.

I’m a data scientist. I have a lot of questions about how Hewlett reached her conclusion. Hewlett’s Center for Talent Innovation claims to have performed a 2 year, 12,000 person study on the career effects of mentors versus sponsors. I cannot find the details of the methodology anywhere on their site or any other site, but I’m already very skeptical.

Why? First reason: observational studies of this nature tend to lack statistical rigor. It’s relatively easy to take 12,000 people at the top and bottom of the org chart, compare sixty variables about them, find one that happens to differ by chance, and claim that that one thing caused the difference. There’s a great comic online about jelly beans that illustrates this. This is also the reason that “Eat this one food to live longer” studies are mostly garbage.

Second reason: this is a difficult subject upon which to perform an experimental study. No one willingly and deliberately foregoes mentors and sponsors, so creating a control group would require denying people opportunities, which I don’t think happened. Creating experimental and control groups would also require assigning mentors and sponsors to people. Given the highly personal nature of those relationships, assigned versions are unlikely to work like real ones.

It’s not that I don’t think sponsors are valuable.

I believe they’re immensely valuable. I believe that Hewlett and her team have done career discourse a service by pointing out that sponsors are important, and that men tend to get sponsored into positions of power while women tend to get mentored to death.

I am not a fan of coupling the value of the sponsor role to the devaluing of the mentor role, though. The book title Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor encourages that mindset, and the careerist pieces tend to run with it.

The zeitgeist attempts to warn folks away from the fate of getting stuck in the marzipan layer: a soft, sticky band of middle management where folks (in the case of Hewlett’s studies, particularly women) get stuck unless they have a sponsor to help them get promoted past it.

So if it’s bad to get over-mentored and under-sponsored, and we should “forget” mentors and go for sponsors instead, then it sounds like we’d prefer the opposite: to be over-sponsored and under-mentored.

I’ve seen that happen. So have you. The result is bumbling bosses who have a friend in power, but who don’t have a clue what they’re doing and sort of know it. Their position relative to their skill level has consequences for their career, too. Some examples:

  • They make decisions that cause the company to do worse, limiting everyone’s satisfaction and employees’ earning potential.
  • They cannot hire experienced folks to work for them, since experienced folks sniff out that they won’t be mentors (or even competent supporters) and don’t accept job offers. As a result, they can’t hire the calibre of staff they need. Maybe they can’t hire at all.
  • They often know they can’t quite do this job, so they feel insecure a lot. Sometimes they try to cover this by jumping back into individual contributor work and bungling it up, or filling their schedule with the thing they feel strongest at (and neglecting other things expected of their role), or jumping to the defense at times that shock or upset their colleagues. This sucks and is very stressful for them and for others.

I think that both mentorship and sponsorship are critical for career advancement. Critical is binary: either something is critical or it’s not critical. I’m less concerned with arbitrating more critical and less critical than I am with obtaining all the critical things to accomplish a goal.

Most importantly, though…

Sponsors and mentors are not mutually exclusive over time.

Sponsors and mentors tend to be distinct people in the particular scope of fixation for most of the LinkedIn posts: a person’s career at a single company. This is because of a phenomenon we’ve talked about before: it’s harder to get promoted inside a company than it is to get a job at the next level up at another company.

Within a company, your promotion/raise depends on your manager advocating effectively for you (and usually spending some social or political capital in the process).

In tech, a lot of managers are just former programmers who did good work, got promoted to managing (which is wholly a different job), and never got trained to manage. So they don’t know how to advocate effectively and need to hoard every scrap of social/political capital they can in order to get anything done. Unless your promo/raise is really high on their priority list, therefore, they’re not gonna fight too hard for it.

What they will do, though, is try to mentor you. After all, they used to be programmers! They used to do your job…and they were good at it! Plus, people love to give advice. They want to be helpful, and it feels good to know things. They can help you get better at your job much more than they can help you get the next job up.

A sponsor, by contrast to most tech managers, has institutional power and knows how to use it. They open doors for people rather than advising those people on how to open the doors themselves. They fight to get people moved up, but they often don’t have time to sit down and pair, or they’ve been out of the weeds too long to offer up-to-date technical advice anyway. The two roles therefore end up separating.

Career development between multiple companies

Compare the above to the experience of an incoming applicant at a tech company. This applicant does not work at the company yet.

Tech jobs are already a buyer’s market because there are fewer capable engineers, designers, and product people than there are positions to fill. The scarcity gets more and more dire as you go up in seniority. So when a person finally applies for the senior role, the hiring manager is incentivized to see them as senior because, after all, who knows when another senior candidate will come along?

Also, for a new candidate, the status quo is them not working at the company, so if the company wants them, they need to work to overcome the status quo.

For an existing employee the status quo is that they do work there, so the company can be a bit lazier and still hang onto this person’s work product.

Outside the scope of a single company, someone can be both mentor and sponsor.

Many of my mentors  have offered career advice, answered my questions, or reviewed my projects at one point, and then later have thought of me when an opportunity came up to appear on a podcast, apply to their company, or give a talk. My salary and authority increases in tech have come from job-hopping more often than they have come from convincing a current employer.

On some occasions I have also had folks recommend me for positions, then mentor me to succeed in those positions since my performance reflected on them.

And on even fewer occasions, I have had opportunities to sponsor people who had sponsored me for things before. Because…

Sponsorship is a favor that happens in the presence of trust.

I don’t go to someone I don’t know, who doesn’t know my work, and ask them to shoehorn me into a position. This is because sponsorship comes with accountability: when someone sponsors you, you are borrowing their reputation. This person is vouching for you. Therefore if you don’t do a good job, it could reflect poorly on their reputation.

I’ll also say that, when complete strangers have approached me and asked me to advocate for them to get something when I had never seen their work, I did not have a positive internal reaction to those requests. They want to borrow my reputation—something I worked hard to build—when I have no evidence that they will treat it with care.

For this reason, when I ask others for help, it’s usually mentorship. I ask them to help me get better at things, and I do my best to demonstrate receptiveness to feedback and eagerness to improve. When these folks are impressed with my work, they know that their hard-earned reputation will be safe with me if they recommend me for something later.

Do I think it’s OK to ask folks to recommend you for raises, promotions, gigs, and other opportunities? Yes! But not by “finding sponsors” in the wild and asking for their credibility. Instead, I ask myself a series of questions:

  • What am I trying to do?
  • Out of the people with whom I have an established relationship, whose reputation might be able to help me do this?
  • Out of those people, which ones would be excited about the return they would get on loaning me their reputation?

Those are the people I reach out to about sponsorship. Not strangers. People I know. People I trust, who trust me. People who would see sponsoring me as a chance to demonstrate the depth of their network and the soundness of their judgment.

Conclusion

I think it’s great to have sponsors. I do not think it’s great to devalue mentorship in favor of sponsorship.

First of all, most of the thought on sponsorship cites a single source with foggy and dubious research methodology.

Second of all, the context in which mentors and sponsors end up in think pieces is a very specific one: one company. And that doesn’t reflect most tech careers.

Third of all, mentorship and sponsorship relationships can shift in and out of active states, and from one state to another.

And fourth, sponsorship happens in the presence of trust. So getting a sponsor is less a matter of looking for a stranger to sponsor you than it is of having a preexisting trust relationship in which someone else is happy to loan you their reputation.

And finally I exhort you, as I often do, to investigate the source of claims that get echoed around without counterpoint. Flat claims about what people “should” do often have a nuanced and interesting underbelly.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

The rest of the leveling up series (Now in post #20 because people apparently don’t get tired of this topic)

The Applied Data Science Case Study (has nothing to do with the topic of this post, but I’m proud of this series)

The Feedback Collection (six more posts about advancing your career, this time through feedback)

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