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Mentors and Sponsors Make the Difference

Mentors and Sponsors Make the Difference

by Kate Den Houter and Ellyn Maese

Story Highlights

  • Talent is fostered through organizational communities and relationships
  • Mentors and sponsors are key to cultivating employee potential
  • Formal development programs can benefit employees if you follow four steps

The old proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” also applies to developing employees: It takes an organizational community to foster talent. No one climbs the corporate ladder alone.  

Mentorship and sponsorship are particularly effective ways for the organizational community to cultivate employees’ potential. And they are potential avenues to improving representation of women and racial/ethnic minority groups in management and leadership positions. Roughly six in 10 CHROs surveyed by Gallup reported having mentoring and sponsorship programs to address DEI.

A March 2022 survey of more than 8,000 working adults conducted by the Gallup Center on Black Voices found that mentors and sponsors are crucial to shaping the employee experience, especially when organizations purposefully put them in place. 


What Is Mentorship and Sponsorship?

Mentors and sponsors serve the same function: to propel talent. But they do so in different ways. A mentor shares their knowledge and provides guidance to a less-experienced individual. Anyone who has support and advice to share can provide effective mentorship, regardless of their role or tenure. On the other hand, sponsors are in a position of power and actively promote growth, provide access to opportunities at work and advocate for the career advancement of a less-experienced individual.

In other words, a sponsor opens the door to opportunities for another employee, while a mentor supports and guides an employee so that they can open the door for themselves.

Mentorship and sponsorship have been recognized as particularly effective ways to leverage the organizational community to cultivate employees’ potential.

Currently, only 40% of employees report having a mentor in the workplace. Rates are even lower for sponsorship at 23%.



Mentors and Sponsors Shape the Employee Experience 

Gallup’s Center on Black Voices finds that employees benefit immensely from these relationships -- mentors and sponsors propel development, foster engagement and facilitate positive organizational perceptions. 

Employees with either a mentor or sponsor are more than twice as likely as those without to strongly agree that their organization provides a clear plan for their career development.

Not only do mentors and sponsors help employees chart a path to their future, but they also help ensure that employees are equipped to reach their goals. For example, employees with mentors are twice as likely to strongly agree that they have had opportunities to learn and grow at work in the last year. 

Not surprisingly, employees with this kind of support for growth and development at work have a more positive employee experience. They are twice as likely to be engaged and 98% more likely to strongly agree that they would recommend their organization as a great place to work.

Formal Mentors and Sponsors Have a Greater Impact 

In the workplace, mentoring and sponsoring relationships commonly come in one of two forms: informal or formal. Informal relationships tend to arise organically, sometimes entirely by accident. On the other hand, formal relationships are usually established through an organizational program or assigned by a manager or other leader. 

While informal and formal relationships tend to have favorable outcomes, data from the Gallup Center on Black Voices suggest that formalized mentoring and sponsoring relationships have a greater impact on employees’ development.

Compared to employees with informal mentors and sponsors, employees with formal mentors and sponsors are more likely (75% and 97%, respectively) to strongly agree their organization provides a clear plan for their career development. Similarly, employees with formal mentors or sponsors are 38% more likely than those with informal mentors or sponsors to strongly agree that they have someone at work who helps them reach their career goals.  

Mentors and sponsors propel development, foster engagement, and facilitate positive organizational perceptions among employees.

Formal mentoring and sponsoring relationships also facilitate positive perceptions of equity in advancement opportunities: Employees with formal mentors are 58% more likely -- and employees with formal sponsors are 48% more likely -- to strongly agree that their workplace gives all employees equal opportunities to advance to senior management.   

Creating a Village 

Given the pivotal role mentors and sponsors play in employees’ work lives, organizational leaders have a tremendous opportunity to be intentional in the development of their employees. By implementing formal mentorship and sponsorship programs, companies can help create their employees’ organizational “village.”

Mentorship and sponsorship may be particularly beneficial for Black and Hispanic employees, women, or others who often face unique challenges and barriers to their development. Organizations can help these employees succeed by designating mentors and sponsors who help those employees navigate their careers and encourage their success.

Leaders can make sure their employees and organizations reap the benefits of mentorship and sponsorship by doing these four things:

  • Start with the end goal. What do you expect mentorship or sponsorship to change in your organization? What impact should it have on the employee experience, representation or other key targets? Just because this is a low-cost initiative doesn’t mean leaders should take it lightly -- if they do, it will likely fail.
  • Be mindful when making pairings. Individuals bring unique experiences, aspirations, strengths and interests to the table. Making sure there is good alignment -- between goals, knowledge and personalities -- is critical to productive relationships. Trust and rapport take time to build, but making sure the right blocks are in place will keep the partnership from toppling.
  • Train your mentors and sponsors. Equip your mentors and sponsors by setting clear expectations for their role, providing guidance and tools to get them started, and offering ongoing support to help them be effective. They have a lot of wisdom to share, but they may not always know the best way to share it.
  • Monitor program outcomes. Don’t assume no news is good news. Make sure there are systems to proactively gather feedback about the program and track hard metrics like engagement, key experiences and promotions.

Bring purposeful employee development to your organization.


Kate Den Houter is a research fellow at Gallup.

Ellyn Maese is a senior consultant at Gallup.

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