Publishing Trendsetter is a production of Market Partners International and Publishing Trends.

Sponsorship vs. Mentorship: A Roundtable Discussion Based on Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s (Forget a Mentor) Find a Sponsor

Hey, Trendsetters! As you may be aware, we’ve had some recent changes in staff, but Publishing Trendsetter is still alive and kicking, and we are excited to continue giving you interesting perspectives from young professionals in the publishing industry. We’re still looking to help facilitate discussions about the unique challenges of starting a career in book business and to observe how greater industry changes are trickling down to mid to entry level jobs. If you have any suggestions or ideas of what you’d like to see on the blog, feel free to email us thoughts at [email protected].

Find-a-Sponsor-280As an introduction to our new editorial staff, we thought we would engage in a roundtable discussion about a prominent theme on Trendsetter: mentorship and its importance early in one’s career. Well, our discussion touches on mentorship, but it actually extends a bit beyond that.

(Forget a Mentor) Find a Sponsor (Harvard Business Review, 2013) by Sylvia Ann Hewlett is a new book that talks about the importance of mentors in the workplace, but also the even more important role of sponsors, senior-level champions who will fast-track your career by advocating for you to be in leadership positions and help you continue to ascend throughout your career. Sponsorship, according to Hewlett, is the factor that separates good employees from successful ones, and she carefully details what sponsorship entails throughout the book. To continue the ideas set forth in (Forget a Mentor), Editors Kimberly Lew, Samantha Howard, and Eshani Agrawal engaged in a lively discussion about the book, the role mentors and sponsors have played in their own lives, and how to bag a sponsor of their own.

Kimberly: So my first question I guess is, how did everyone feel about the book?

Eshani: I thought it was a really interesting book. It brought up a few points that I had never thought about, including mentorship vs. sponsorship and the idea that women often don’t have concrete ideas about their future which then causes them to be less ambitious.

Samantha: Yeah, I liked the book a lot. It provided a new view of having a mentor for me. I’d never considered having anyone other than a mentor, and it really just made me think that maybe I’ve been doing this all wrong. But her viewpoints toward women and minorities in the workplace were particularly illuminating. I didn’t necessarily agree with all of her points, but it was interesting to read them, regardless.

Kimberly:  As far as the central theme of the book, I’m curious to get your opinions: How do you differentiate mentorship from sponsorship, as defined in the book? Did the book ultimately convince you there is a difference? Is it a matter of semantics or is there really a difference?

Eshani: As a college student, I feel a lot that the mentorship aspect for me would come from my college professors. I’d go to office hours and talk to them about future goals (and really talk things out) and get advice. But since I’m currently interning, and have interned at a few places, I see my internship coordinators more as sponsors. However, I see the difference becoming harder to see/deal with when one is fully in the work place.

Samantha: The way I understood the difference between mentorship and sponsorship was that a sponsor was someone that was going to go to bat for you, really stick their neck out and take some pretty serious risks for you along the way, and compared to a mentor, a sponsor wouldn’t even necessarily be your friend. Just someone that you really admire on a professional level. For me, that’s different than a mentor, because I’ve always considered mentorship to be a little cozier, friendlier. It’s definitely made me consider who I could tap as a sponsor in this industry, but I’ve always worked in very small companies. So I think that makes it trickier overall, and really, I had to wonder if this model was something that could apply specifically to publishing – or not so much.

Eshani:  Or perhaps only in the larger publishing houses and not so much in smaller settings…

Samantha:  Exactly. I interned at a very large independent publisher, but since then I’ve only worked at companies smaller than 10 people. So, the examples from large companies didn’t really resonate for me.

Kimberly:  I guess that’s another question that I had throughout the book– how reachable is it to have a real sponsor, especially one that is really effective? A lot of the examples of the books are executives, many of them in C-Suite.

Eshani:  Well that made me think a lot about how you might have to hop sponsor to sponsor. Look for opportunities and go get ’em! But then again, loyalty is a big part of being sponsored.

Kimberly: Yes, my impression from the book is that sponsors are a very close bond. As Sam said, they’re not necessarily friends, but there is an expectation that a sponsor will stick his/her neck out for you, which, especially in big business, is a pretty big deal.  I know the book says having multiple sponsors is ideal, but even finding one, who would hopefully really pull through for you, seems like a difficult feat in and of itself

Samantha: I think an important point that Hewlett made too was that it needed to be a reciprocal relationship as well. And that’s a little scary early on to think about? How could I possibly have something to offer?

Eshani: It is possible to use your mentor to get the sponsor?

Samantha: That is an interesting question. Maybe? I could see a mentor being offended? Or maybe they’d be all for it.

Kimberly: As Eshani brought up, it does seem like loyalty is a huge bargaining chip in the sponsor-sponsee relationship. But that also calls to question then how easy it is to have multiple sponsors. I feel like it’s possible to use your mentor to get a sponsor, but I feel like if your mentor is in contact with someone who could be a good sponsor, then they may already have that relationship with one another.

Eshani: Honesty is also a big part of the sponsor-sponsee relationship though. Maybe part of that is conversing about where you want to go/what you want to do and what the options are. And that’s how you can move from one sponsor to another?

Samantha: Additionally, I suppose if your network was big enough, your other sponsors wouldn’t even know about each other. Her statistics about how effective sponsorship is for moving up in the workplace were pretty impressive, though, particularly for women.

Kimberly: Yes, very much so. And in some cases it seems almost necessary. Like in the case of the author’s academic experience in which she wasn’t in touch enough with the board to be able to get tenure.

Samantha: Absolutely. That was shocking and kind of scary to read.

Kimberly: So if we accept that sponsors are not only necessary but in ways a necessity to move up the ranks, how does one go about getting one? Is there such thing as cold calling a sponsor? I know it’s not uncommon to reach out to strangers for mentoring (or at least a “coffee-I-want-to-pick-your-brain” thing), but what kind of groundwork needs to be laid to get in touch with sponsor?

Eshani:  What if you always went in with an idea? Instead of just saying that you’re interested in what that person has to say in general, you say that you have this idea you want their input on. That already shows that you might have something to offer.

Samantha:  A lot of the examples in the book were fairly aggressive ploys to get him or herself in front of an executive. Fortune favors the bold, I suppose, because a lot of these folks that were being reached out to seemed very high up, not someone you just shoot an email to or walk into their office. But starting out with something to offer, like you said, Eshani, is a good call for sure.

Kimberly: I think a lot of them also came from in-house, though. I guess I’m referring to the small office problem of what you do when you are not known in the community/industry. Is there such thing as cold-calling a sponsor?

Eshani: Is that where something like LinkedIn becomes useful? Ask a shared connection to introduce you.

Samantha: It can’t hurt to try calling, the worst thing they’d say is no. Linkedin is a good point though. How would we all go do this if we had to go out and find a sponsor today? Right now?

Kimberly:  Exactly. I think it’s a good question. Because the thing about asking for input vs. finding someone who will really vet you is figuring out how to show your value to them off the bat. A lot of the people mentioned in the book seemed to bargain their work for sponsorship, basically trading prioritizing their sponsors’ projects for what they needed.

Eshani: There is a point though when asking for input becomes, “I realize you like this idea, how can we do it?” And talking about the ‘we’ can be powerful.

Kimberly: So basically like pitching? I think that’s a really interesting idea, that you would need to show value by creating your own job vs. just applying for what is available

Samantha:  Yeah, that’s interesting. I think the closest thing to a sponsor I’ve ever had was over in a big publishing house. And I was just an assistant as a literary agency at the time. There wasn’t much I could offer her, and she went above and beyond, trying to get me interviews and in front of the right people, but then it just kind of fizzled out, and I bet a large part of that was a) that we didn’t work in the same company b) I didn’t have anything to offer her really.

Kimberly: Yes, the reciprocal relationship is really important. I’ve found that keeping in touch and maintaining a strong connection is even hard for mentors/mentees sometimes. I know there have been a lot of people who I’ve really liked who were in the industry when I was interning who I wanted to keep in touch with, but I didn’t always know how without just asking them for things.

Eshani: I absolutely agree. Sometimes I feel like my mentors realize that I’m driven and decide that I can handle it myself, so they back off, and then I worry about bothering them.

Samantha: Exactly! And you can offer to buy them coffee sometime, but still, you’d honestly just be taking up more of their time. Maybe what we’re getting at here, is that being mid-level instead of entry to upper entry level is where you can really start looking for sponsors?

Eshani: I agree with you, Sam. But I’d consider turning to social media though! If someone is active on Twitter, just a simple Tweet can bring you back into their focus.

Kimberly: I think being mid-level definitely helps. I think to effectively show value to gain sponsorship, you have to have a proven track record.

Samantha: And you have something to offer at that point, probably. Something pretty substantial at least, that way you can prove that it can and will be a mutually beneficial relationship.

Kimberly:  Is one way to leverage your lack of experience to gain sponsorship at entry level to work for free? Should that be on the table?

Eshani: In terms of having something to offer, I noticed that a few of the women in the book talked about how this related to time management. They needed to put more time into their jobs than their families for a long time. This bothered me somewhat; I’ve always thought that I’d want to try to be balanced.

Samantha: Yeah, to both of your points, there is a lot of sacrifice going on in the examples the author gave, sacrifices of time, culture, family, relationships, etc. There weren’t really a lot of people in the book that seemed to have a balanced work/life situation.

Kimberly: Building on Eshani’s point, do you think it’s harder for women to get sponsors? But also do you think it’s even more essential?

Eshani:  Yes and yes, Kim. I think sponsors may automatically assume that a woman is emotional, has the burden of a home life in some way, and maybe is more mercurial in what she wants. Plus, a lot of women do leave the workforce for a few years when they have a child, and if you’ve stuck your neck out for this person and they suddenly leave, maybe that’s a problem. But all of this also means that a woman needs someone to stand up and say, regardless of all those stereotypes, this person has something to offer.

Samantha: Well it seems like that’s all the more reason why women should have a sponsor, again, that person, from the author’s definition will be going to bat for you. I would think a sponsor would be pretty understanding about maternity leave, personal issues, etc. We’re all human.

Eshani: I think they should be. But if it comes to weighing pros and cons, it’s possible that a sponsor would consider those human issues as cons.

Kimberly: Something Sam and I were talking about was how it seemed especially difficult for minorities to get sponsorship. There seems to be a lot of mention in the book of people sacrificing their culture for the chance to stand out to their sponsors. Is that worth it? Just even on a personal level?

Eshani: My grandmother once told me a story about how when she first started working in the US (which was like the 70s or 80s) she was really nervous about wearing henna on her hands. She said people wondered if it was a disease. But in the early 2000s she would do it proudly and people would ask her questions openly. Are times changing or is it because she worked in the same company for 30 years? I’m not sure.

Samantha: Overall there was an undertone in the book that I felt was kind of nudging people toward assimilating toward whatever the office culture was. I can understand that as a general idea, but overall it made me kind of sad. People not being able to dress in a way that made them more comfortable, wearing things that wouldn’t even be culturally appropriate, learning about sports they weren’t previously interested in. The author went to great lengths at times to talk about how important appearances were. I’m not saying they’re not, but sometimes it felt like a little much to me.

Eshani: I think what’s frustrating is that the author doesn’t talk about how the work place should change but that people should.

Samantha: Ha, well I think that’d be a whole different book! But I agree.

Kimberly: I agree too. Which makes me wonder: if sponsorships are indeed that secret little thing that really takes people to the top, is that creating a kind of inbred top? Even if executives are looking to find less conventional candidates to sponsor, is this still keeping an inner circle of privilege? Or is the idea that assimilating will give people the chance to enact change from the inside?

Samantha: She did say at one point, “It’s lonely at the top, but at least you can wear what you want.”

Kimberly: Hahahaha. I’m getting that cross-stitched on a pillow.

Samantha: Which does not signal systemic change, per se, but I think there were some gentle implications of being at the top allows you do something some powerful things, like the task force to help women and minorities she created at the end of the book.

Kimberly: So, did the book inspire you to approach anything different in your own lives?

Eshani: The last time I went up to a professor and asked them to help me with a project in the department (it’s a big project, something that hasn’t really been tried before by an undergrad), I was really aggressive. Hopefully not horrifically so, but I felt like I brought an energy to the room that made her feel more like she needed to help me. Because I thought a lot about my “castle” and what I wanted the next year to look like for me.

Samantha: Nice, Eshani! In general, I think I need to network more to get sponsors and to also maybe be able to offer new relationships to a potential sponsor. But it’s definitely gotten me thinking about my professional relationships, and overall I know that’s a good thing.

Eshani: I also thought what Hewlett said about not being too pragmatic about the future is interesting. When you’re too practical you start not looking at all the opportunities and possibilities. Which to me at first contradicted her point that women tend to be wishy-washy about their futures, but I guess the point is that there is an active openness that Hewlett wants us to take on as opposed to the wishy-washy behavior that leads nowhere.

Kimberly: Eshani, I know it’s hard to do since you’re still in school, but do you also look much more long term? Like do you see a role that your NYU connections can still play in your career after you graduate?

Eshani:  Absolutely. My interests revolve around publishing, academia, and writing, and all of those things are linked. As an English major, I’m working with people who are somewhat experienced in all of those things and these professors are working in-depth with other institutions in the city. I have to say, being in the city makes it different though. I don’t know how I would feel at a smaller school; maybe that the professors have less connections that I could use. But even with that, I am constantly looking to find what will set me apart to those connections.

Kimberly:  At the same time, I imagine it’s hard at such a big school like NYU. I remember I would have just finished classes with some professors and I would be convinced they wouldn’t remember me

Eshani: And that’s often true. I’m a big talker in class and go to office hours, so that helps. But basically how I’ve found a semi-sponsor in the English department is that I went up to the professor and asked if they had any research opportunities for me, I did the research over the summer (and did a fairly good job in their eyes), and then the professor kept trying to find me other opportunities. So to me it’s also an example of a mentor turning into a sponsor?

Kimberly: Oh hey, look at that. Real world sponsorship example right there. You offered her your skills and proved your value from the start. That opened it up to be a reciprocal relationship, I think.

Eshani: That’s interesting, and I think you’re right–so probably also just shows how the line between mentorship and sponsorship does feel blurry. Especially when you’re engaging in the relationship.

Kimberly:  And then there’re peer mentors, which has actually been one of the most effective things in my career. Maybe it’s because since you’re all in the same boat you work all the much harder for one another. Is there such thing as peer sponsorship? (That is only a slightly serious question.)

Eshani: Haha! Well I think that peer sponsorship maybe works if say, I am a senior helping out a sophomore? I still have some age/experience on them, but it’s not like we’re miles apart. But I guess that’s mentorship…Blurry lines!

Samantha: [[Cue Robin Thicke]]

(Everyone laughs.)

Kimberly: Was there anything else we wanted to discuss? Hopefully not Robin Thicke related?

Samantha:  I mean, I think we could probably all go on all day, but we covered the main points.

Eshani: Agreed!

Kimberly: Great. [Cue “Blurred Lines” as we exit]

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