The Sponsor Effect: Dumbing down leadership.
Leadership or Sponsorship?

The Sponsor Effect: Dumbing down leadership.

Sponsors are the latest buzz in the business world.  A study found—wait for it, because this is going to totally blow your mind—having someone in a position of authority and influence on your side to advocate on your behalf helps ensure promotions and potentially your entrance into the “c-suite.”  Is the sponsor effect a new, untapped, overlooked concept?  Or is it simply the dumbing down of leadership?

Ever since the first caveman taught the second caveman how to navigate the intricacies of tribal politics, mentors have served a vital role in the development and integration of people onto teams.  Thirty years ago in boot camp, I served as a mentor, coaching my mentee, John, on how to make his bunk, iron his underwear into four inch squares, and hide his unfolded clothes in the air vent between our foot lockers.  We discussed the interpersonal dynamics of a night watch and how best to address a screaming drill instructor while tiny drops of spittle splashed in your face.

Shortly afterwards, as a young enlisted man recently out of boot camp, I was assigned a mentor to help keep me from accidentally shooting the wrong person.  He helped me find the latrine, figure out which foods wouldn’t cause diarrhea at the mess hall, and determine which noncommissioned officers to cozy up to in order to get choice assignments.  While I wouldn’t call any of them sponsors, it served as an excellent introduction to the mentor-mentee relationship.

I also recall my first encounter with what today’s consultants are calling a sponsor.  After earning my stripes as a noncommissioned officer, I wanted to attend an advanced and highly selective school.  Unfortunately, I was new to the base and several others also wanted the opportunity.  I reached out to our First Sergeant—although newly arrived, I had an excellent reputation—and explained my desire, highlighting how my attendance would yield greater benefits for the unit.  He said he would see what he could do and a month later I was in the class.  Was he a sponsor or a leader?

Sponsors and mentors and leaders, oh my.

Current advocates of sponsorship in the workplace draw distinctions between mentors and sponsors, but avoid such comparisons to leadership.  They are quick to embrace statistics about the effect of sponsors on job satisfaction, then just as swiftly advocate for formal sponsorship programs.  Their cheerleading for sponsorship is found in books, interviews, and public speaking engagements, touted as a new, breakthrough means of understanding corporate success.

Catalyst, a research and consulting center whose mission is to, “Accelerate progress for women through workplace inclusion,” sees sponsors as, “advocates in positions of authority who use their influence intentionally to help others advance.” (Emphasis added.)  Mentors, in contrast, “Provide advice, feedback, and coaching” (Catalyst).  Further defining the differences, Sylvia Hewlett, author of the book, Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor, notes, “Mentors advise; sponsors act” (Schwabel, 2013).  Her definition delineates between advisors and actors—once a person acts on behalf of another, they are a sponsor—but fails to address the leader’s role as sponsor.  Interestingly, Hewlett’s definition conveniently pulls all mentors with influence who advocate on behalf of an employee into her definition of a sponsor, watering down the mentor role.

Promotors of the new “sponsor” model do not draw a distinction between leaders and sponsors because there isn’t one.  The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines a leader as “one who leads; a person who has commanding authority or influence.”  (Emphasis added.)  If those two words sound remarkably familiar, its because they are the same two words used to describe sponsors.  A sponsor is simply a leader doing her job effectively.

Sergeant Sketch
Effective leaders are selfless. They recognize they serve their people, the mission, and the organization.

My First Sergeant was certainly a leader—I could tell by the extra stripes surrounding the diamond on his arm—he had authority within the organization and he was in a position of influence.  In addition, he used that influence to advocate on behalf of others.  To call him a sponsor would be like referring to Leonardo da Vinci as only a painter; a part of the whole.

What is leadership?

Webster’s Dictionary defines leadership as “the power or ability to lead other people,” but anyone who has worked for another person knows that definition is inadequate.  Kevin Kruse, entrepreneur and author, has his own definition of leadership: “Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal” (Kruse, 2013).  Kruse omits “authority” from his description because he believes leaders transcend their job titles—a talented and respected engineer with no direct reports can have a greater sphere of influence than a mid-level manager.  However, Kruse does recognize “influence” is a key component of leadership.

My personal definition of effective leadership includes: inspiring people; setting high standards; developing the next generation of leaders; successfully rallying a disparate group of people behind a single mission; leading by example; showing empathy and compassion; effecting course corrections; and doing the right things even when they are more difficult.  Are there components within leadership that sound similar to the new sponsor hype?  Of course, because being a sponsor, developing people, providing opportunities, and identifying and advocating for talented proteges are all part of effective leadership.

Sponsorship is merely the parsing of one tenet of good leadership: the development and promotion of talented people.  The problem is not with leadership, it’s with ineffective leaders who either do not or are incapable of understanding the full scope of their responsibilities.  In addition, some leaders are better or more effective than others in a given situation.  Organizations are looking for the next pill to transform these leaders into enlightened game-changers, and the focus on sponsors is their way of removing the responsibility from those who are ultimately responsible—the executive management team.

Has sponsorship been inadequate?

Most of the articles advocating a greater role and understanding of sponsors in the workplace focus on the lack of advocates for women and minorities.  Proponents of the sponsor paradigm argue that sponsors have a vested interest in only cheerleading for the best—it is the sponsor’s reputation that is on the line if things don’t work out.  Patricia Fili-Krushel, chairwoman of the news group at NBCUniversal, notes, “You must demonstrate that you’ll deliver outstanding performance—you’ve got to consistently make your boss look good” (“Sponsors vs. Mentors: What’s the Difference?”, 2014).  Therefore, shouldn’t we see the best and the brightest men and women being promoted into executive leadership positions?

The discrepancy between the number of women in the workforce and those in executive management is not simply due to a lack of sponsorship.  Women, despite accounting for the majority of college graduates, only make up 25 percent of executive- and senior-level officials and managers at S&P 500 companies (Warner, 2015).  Good leaders recognize diversity as a strength.  Lacking support for women and minorities is simply a sign of ineffective leadership; it represents an organization’s inability or unwillingness to develop leaders able to look beyond gender and race and recognize talent.

Why all the “sponsor” hype?

In short, people are looking for ways to make a difference and remain relevant.  Bright successful people like Sheryl Sandberg are already talking about how to Lean In and proven leaders like retired General Stanley McChrystal are discussing leadership.  How does one make a difference in the business world—especially in an age devoid of personal responsibility?  One way is to remove personal responsibility and call out sponsors.  Unfortunately, crusaders of the sponsor effect are missing the point.

There is no difference between a sponsor and a leader because sponsorship is part of leadership.  Ralph Nader said, “I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers” (Kruse, 2012).  When we accept that good leaders are responsible for producing more good leaders, we are making a presumption that sponsorship is the responsibility of leadership.  Good leaders are vested in their employees and have invested in their success; they have a responsibility to sponsor.

If there is a difference it is between effective and ineffective leaders.  Sylvia Hewlett noted, “Sponsorship is a two-way street. Protégés have to deliver, too: through stellar performance, loyalty to the sponsor and the organization, and by contributing a distinct ‘value-added’ that helps burnish the sponsor’s brand across the organization” (Schawbel, 2013).  In her model, sponsor’s are selfish, advocating because it enhances their brand.  In fact, good leaders rarely consider the question, “What’s in it for me?” when choosing to promote an employee—they are looking out for the mission and the people who make it happen.

Good leaders recognize that people grow and change—someone focused on a family issue today might be the dedicated, committed, rock star of the future.  They advocate because they recognize talent and a positive fit that will enhance the organization.  Rather than dispose of struggling employees, they ask questions, seek reasons, try to understand personal dynamics, and invest before divesting.


Thirty years ago, the term “sponsor” was just something Sally Struthers asked when requesting 70 cents a day be sent to the Christian Children’s fund.  Today it is a business model; a corporate means of avoiding responsibility for selecting less-effective and ineffective leaders.

Effective leaders at every level of the organization are personally and professionally invested in people, whether a formal reporting relationship exists or not.  My First Sergeant advocated on my behalf because I had a good reputation, took personal responsibility and brought a solid proposal to the table backed by proven dedication and skills.  Later, another sergeant outside of my reporting chain stepped in while I was experiencing traumatic personal issues.  Good leaders care about people’s challenges, skills, and deficiencies, while understanding personal and family goals.  They invest considerable time to develop, identify, and advocate for talented people across the organization.

Jack Welch said, “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others” (Kruse, 2012).  We can’t simply cull sponsorship from the herd of leadership responsibilities and hope it will make for a fairer world.  Sponsorship is not a new concept.  A true sponsor isn’t a sponsor at all, but a leader who is always looking to promote the best and the brightest for the good of the mission.

Unfortunately, the sponsor effect seems to be catching on in business.  Organizations are embracing the concept as if it is a shiny new penny.  Rather than focus on sponsors, companies should consider investing in leadership and leave the shiny, new pennies to the consultants.

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Cover photo courtesy of Nick Karvounis at Unless otherwise noted, all other photos and drawings are those of the author.  Copyright can be found here.

Catalyst. ”Sponsorship/Mentoring" New York: Catalyst. Retrieved 27 June 2016, from

Sponsors vs. Mentors: What’s the Difference? (2014, February 24) Women Powering Business. WPB Expert, Retrieved 27 June 2016. from

Schawbel, D. (2013, September 10). Sylvia Ann Hewlett: Find A Sponsor Instead Of A Mentor. Forbes. Retrieved June 27, 2016, from

Warner, Judith (2015, August 4). "The Women's Leadership Gap." Center for American Progress. Retrieved 24 June 2016, from

Kruse, K. (2012, October 16). 100 Best Quotes On Leadership. Forbes. Retrieved July 1, 2016, from

Kruse, K. (2013, April 9). What is Leadership? Forbes. Retrieved July 1, 2016, from

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