Being Mentored to Death Rather Than Promoted

In Hermina Ibarra’s Harvard Business Review podcast titled Women are over-mentored (But under-sponsored), she discussed a recent study where she found that many mentoring programs were not producing a true substantial result for women: promotions up the corporate hierarchy.

In essence, the women were “being mentored to death rather than promoted.”

Mentoring is a tricky and fuzzy concept that gets thrown around a lot. Mentoring has a lot of connotation. Talking to people about mentoring provides you with an assortment of definitions and descriptions. What we do know is that mentoring is a relationship between two people that will change over time. Sometimes it is formalized by organizations or associations. Sometimes it is an organic relationship that emerges out of a talk over coffee or bonding at a retreat.

But the shape of the relationship varies: The senior-level, experienced individual (i.e., mentor) provides support, knowledge, direction, and feedback regarding career plans and personal development to a junior-level person. In many industries, we witness reverse mentoring where junior level employees provide support and knowledge to more experienced colleagues.

But Ibarra introduced a possible solution: sponsorship. A specific type of mentoring that is rarely talked about is sponsorship. Sponsorship is a deeper, intense, and targeted cycle of grooming and promotion. The mentor (the senior level person) is valuable to someone’s career progress because he or she provides upward mobility, visibility, and support to their proteges as well as fights to get someone promoted.

Why is this matter important to important to our industry, where we are a feminized industry and the number of female students outnumber men in most classrooms? This is a pipeline issue. The faces at the start of the pipeline look very different from those at the end. What happens in the middle when many people of color and women exit firms?

One way to address the structural disparities issues in our industry and to eliminate some of the lack of visible diversity is to create mentoring and sponsorship programs where the goals of the program are clearly defined. Just like in our programs, the program should have a timeframe for executive and those involved are held accountable for meeting goals and objectives.

I’d like to hear from you. What are your thoughts about mentoring? What are your thoughts about sponsorship? Which corporations are doing a good job of mentoring? What have been your experiences with mentoring. Let us know in the comments.

Submitted by Natalie Tindall.  Natalie is an assistant professor of public relations at Georgia State University. She specializes in diversity and identity in public relations and teaches Public Relations Writing, PR Research and Campaigns.


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