Getting Sponsored – When Mentorship Isn’t Enough (Part I)

I recently witnessed something profoundly disappointing.  A close friend and former colleague who was finishing training at an excellent institution attended a large national meeting, accompanied by no less than 3 personal mentors, with the eager hopes of being connected with potential future employers.  As with most graduating trainees, he was expecting his mentors to help offer meaningful networking opportunities to get his “foot in the door” for some of the very few academic positions available in his chosen subspecialty.  I watched him struggle for several days before going home with no new contacts, no new prospects, and no job interviews.  His mentors, despite helping him excel in research and helping him develop a work-product to present at a huge meeting, ultimately failed him at the meeting in question.  In that moment, I realized that not all mentors are good sponsors. 

Sponsorship is very different from mentorship, though sometimes a great mentor will naturally be an excellent sponsor as well.  Sponsorship has been more recognized in the business world over the last decade after a study published in the Harvard Business Review, “The Sponsor Effect” highlighted the role that sponsorship has in advancing careers.  Specifically, they showed that more than 2/3 of participants who had a sponsor reported satisfaction in their career advancement, while greater than 2/3 of participants who did not have a sponsor resisted advocating for a raise for themselves.  The study also showed that sponsors can confer a 22-30% statistical career benefit.  However, sponsorship is only recently becoming more and more recognized as a key factor in advancing careers in academic medicine as well. 

What is a sponsor?  I think the following graphic from Stanford University does the best job of explaining the difference between a mentor and a sponsor


I think the bottom line is that sponsors are personally and professionally tied to the success of their protégé’s and make it a point to ensure that their protégé’s are connected to the people that will help them achieve their career goals and advance to bigger and better things.  Yes, traditionally, in the business world, this would be primarily within their own organization.  However, in the world of academic medicine, where so much of our career trajectories and growth opportunities (and promotions) are dependent on how we’re seen by people outside of our current institution, either at other programs, or within national societies/committees, I think a major part of sponsorship in academic medicine is active networking.

As I reflect on my own mentoring relationships, I see in hindsight the difference between my mentors and my sponsors.  While much of my personal and professional development is attributable to the advice and guidance of my mentors, I can now see that most of my current career, administrative, research, and educational opportunities have been directly because of my sponsors (even though I didn’t know it at the time).  I was extremely lucky to have these individuals take a vested interest in my personal success, without me ever asking.  But for those of us who are not lucky enough to have sponsors fortuitously arrive in our lives, there are a few ways to increase the chance of getting a good sponsor…  Stay tuned for Part II.

David Werho Headshot

David K. Werho, MD is an Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of California San Diego and a Pediatric Cardiac Intensivist at Rady Children’s Hospital – San Diego.  His research focuses on pediatric cardiac ICU outcomes as well as interventions and curriculum development in medical education.  He tweets @DWerho and contributes to the Pediatric Cardiac Intensive Care Society Newsletter as editor and contributor.

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