Sponsors or mentors – which will get you there?

Anne Losby & Penny Peng

Thomson Reuters organized this great panel discussion.  It was very well attended with nearly every seat in the large auditorium was taken.

Abstract: “We’ve heard time and again that mentors are invaluable assets for career development.  Now, there’s a new resource out there that everyone is talking about, the sponsor. A mentor shares their knowledge and expertise.  But a sponsor helps get you there, by advocating for you with decision-makers. Learn key points from recent sponsorship research, and explore their relevance and applicability with a panel of senior technology and talent executives.”


  • Anne Losby, Senior Director Organization Development, Thomson Reuters


  • Patricia Perry, Intel
  • Tracy Dodd, Vice President, Talent Development, CA Technologies
  • Penny Herscher, FirstRain
  • Emma Sabin, Catalyst

Why is this topic of Mentoring and Sponsorship so important?

Women in Business Today – progress is being made, but it is painstakingly slow

  • Catalyst has been tracking women in Fortune 500 since 1995.  3.8% Women CEOs in Fortune 500 (19 women out of 500 CEO’s, 4 of which are leaders of technology companies, these are IBM, Xerox, HP, and Yahoo)
  • Back in 1995, there were only 2 women CEOs, not even in top 500, but top 1000.
  • 16.1% board seats held by women
  • 14.1% women corporate executives
  • Stunningly, women make-up about ~50% of management positions, but few at executive levels
  • Approximately only 25% of computing tech workforce is made up of women.  I talked to a few college students here and did my own informal poll asking them the percentage of men versus women in their classes and they said roughly about 20% women

What is the difference and challenges that women face?

  • Family? No, even women without families have the same numbers.
  • Studies have found that it is “unconscious stereotyping”, seeing women as leaders is still tough, even for some women.
  • Lack of access to influential others (network: there are more men leaders).
  • Outdated work processes and mindsets, industrial revolutions work styles, but not modern more flexible and fluid work styles.

Solutions to leverage female talent: Catalyst found 81% of companies have employee resource groups for women, 65% have women’s leadership programs and 62% had mechanisms for accountability for diversity in the workforce. About 25% had high potential identification program for women.  60% of companies had mentoring programs.  Catalyst found that these programs had great investment of time and money, but these companies found even greater return on investment due to greater knowledge sharing, increased job satisfaction, increased performance, and lower turnover.

Mentoring is critical and essential, but it is not sufficient.  Studies found that, generally speaking, men tend to know what they want and ask for it, but that women tend to be a bit more humble, not as specific and do not ask for help as much.  Know where you want to go, don’t be afraid to ask, and get help with someone who has alignment with your personal goals.  Women report having more mentors than men now, which wasn’t the case 10 years ago.

Mentoring is someone who is providing advice, coaching, or providing emotional support.  A sponsor is someone high level in the organization with strong influence over decision making in the organization.  The sponsor assists an employee in getting assignments, promotions, or positions (“they are ambitious for you”).  Mentors help get you the skills, but the sponsors can help get you the roles (“sponsors are advocates for you”).

The sponsor  feels successful by helping other people be successful.  It helps the sponsor understand how the organization is working a couple of levels down.  They know about the successes and the challenges of the protégé and they know when the person needs some stretch opportunities to  enhance their skill.  Sponsors become a talent gauge and are seen as a leader and as someone who gets things done.  Male MBAs were more likely than Female MBAs to have senior level mentors, which resulted in a significant difference in salary, more promotions and greater compensation over time. However, men and women with senior level sponsors got promoted at the same rate. Salary differences still remain, but promotions were the same.  Sometimes relationships can start as a mentoring role and move into a sponsorship role.  Sponsors are actually putting their credibility on the line, so they really need to believe in and care about their protégé.

How do you get a Sponsor? What advice do you offer?

You have to network, build relationships, and have mutually benefiting relationships.  Getting to know people will lead to informal or formal mentoring and sponsorship opportunities.  Always be authentic and genuine.

What if you make a mistake?

Stay focused on the job, produce the results, and in the end companies pay for performance.  As long as you are focused on the job, they will forgive you if you make a mistake.  Generally speaking, women are naturally good at collaboration.  We have a natural affinity for building teams and sharing information.  Women have strengths in collaboration and a bit of a nurturing gene.

“Just go for it and course correct when you are in the job. Don’t tap down your natural energy and your drive, we need that in our companies.” -Penny Herscher

Grace Hopper