By: Pam Jackson
In the world of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB), we look at allyship, sponsorship, and mentorship as distinctions that assist in creating an inclusive environment where people feel a sense of belonging and can perform their best.
An ally is an individual who is actively choosing to be an upstander, rather than a bystander, in caring for and contributing to people of under-represented groups. Sponsorship is one tool an ally uses to proactively advance the interests of others.
DEIB, allyship, sponsorship, and mentorship are all about making space for people to show up in an organization in the fullness of who they are.
What is allyship?
Allyship involves individuals actively advancing the interests and inclusion of marginalized and underrepresented individuals. The Center of Creative Leadership defines allyship as “the actions, behaviors, and practices that leaders take to support, amplify, and advocate with others, especially with individuals who don’t belong to the same social identity groups as themselves.” Others define an ally as someone who is not a member of an underrepresented group, who is active and purposeful in supporting, promoting, and advancing the interests of people in a marginalized group through a focus on inclusion, equity, and diversity.
One distinction to note about allyship is that it happens with those from another group rather than for them. Allyship happens, not out of patronization, but rather from respect and collaboration.
What is sponsorship?
Sponsorship involves using existing influence and networks to make important connections and/or advancements for others and supporting marginalized individuals in accessing the audiences that can advance them. Allies often use sponsorship as a method to elevate those from underrepresented groups.
Sponsorship can be defined as spending one’s social capital for the sponsored individual. A great sponsor advocates for the sponsee with the power to affect that individual’s career trajectory. From sharing network connections to proactively helping seek new opportunities within and outside the current company, sponsors are willing to use their own assets to help others further their careers.
Sponsorship is a form of audience management. Rather than attending to the person from the under-represented group, sponsors act as public relations agents for that person to others. Sponsorship, thusly defined, is about managing the view of others about the sponsored employee. Said another way, sponsorship is about bringing others “on side” with the sponsored individual.
What is mentorship?
Mentorship focuses on the mentor/mentee relationship and the help that a mentor can provide directly to the mentee. A mentor provides guidance, advice, and feedback. Mentors are experienced and trusted advisors, often a few levels above the mentee and with more tenure in the organization than the mentee. A mentor helps mentees navigate the workplace while bringing their whole self to work each day.
Many leaders believe that they’re sponsoring someone when, in fact, they’re providing mentorship. We must, however, distinguish between sponsorship and mentorship to minimize confusion. An inability to differentiate between the two makes it more likely that leaders will believe they’re supporting their colleagues to their fullest extent when they’re actually only giving one form of support.
In contrast to mentorship, sponsorship involves external support, such as advocacy, visibility, promotion, and connections. Seeing sponsorship as a three-way relationship between the sponsors, the sponsored individual, and an audience helps to distinguish the difference between sponsorship and mentorship.
In the workplace, employees want to connect, share, and learn from others and relationships with mentors, sponsors, or allies can help them achieve that. Organizations benefit when they proactively encourage and facilitate these types of relationships. These relationships don’t always happen naturally so the companies that spend resources to support their creation will expand employees’ personal and professional growth and make them feel more valued in a company.
Each of the three relationships — allyship, mentorship, and sponsorship — is instrumental in creating a strong, inclusive culture that drives employee engagement and expands corporate productivity and profits. The return on investment for companies in empowering allyship, mentorship, and sponsorship is proven positive.
Pam Jackson is a solopreneur who empowers and enables people and teams to elevate their performance, productivity, and profits. With more than 20 years experience in the small- and mid-sized business and economic development sectors in more than five countries, her work is motivated by a commitment to helping people flourish and thrive.