During the Visionary Voices of Ambition, Purpose and Inclusion keynote at the National Retail Federation’s Big Show last week in New York City, moderator Shannon Schuyler, principal, chief purpose and inclusion officer at PwC, asked panelists Mercedes Abramo, president and CEO, Cartier North America; Shawn Outler, chief diversity officer, Macy’s; and Tammy Sheffer, chief people officer, Rent the Runway, to talk about sponsorship and mentorship, and the key differences between the two.
Though the two often get lumped together, mentorship and sponsorship are very different in how they affect people’s careers. A mentor is someone who guides and motivates, whereas a sponsor is someone who uses their power to advocate for someone in the workplace and influences their career path. Sheffer explained that while both roles are important, historically, men get sponsors and women get mentors. One way she suggested to change that narrative is for women to sponsor other women, but also for women leaders to encourage men in leadership to do the same.
Sheffer shared that she had two sponsors in her life – both men – who changed her career. “They were willing and had confidence enough in me to attach themselves to me,” she said. “They advocated for me [and] spoke on my behalf. They changed my career, and they had the power to do that.”
Sheffer went on to explain that mentorship is more about skill building, and while that’s important to have in your career, it doesn’t change career trajectory like sponsorship can.
Abramo added that the biggest difference she sees between mentorship and sponsorship is that sponsors are usually giving up some of their own “political capital” to sponsor an employee or co-worker.
“They’re going in front of their peers and saying ‘I believe in this person,’ so it’s a risk for them and they’re standing behind you,” said Abramo. She added that despite most of Cartier’s clients and team members globally being women, the company didn’t prioritize advancing women into more senior leadership roles until recently. Currently, 55 percent of Cartier’s country managers are women. While this evolution at Cartier has taken time, sponsorship is playing a big role in making it happen.
Schuyler pointed out that most women on the stage (herself included) had at least one male sponsor in their career, if not more, and that we can’t underestimate how vital men are to the journey around diversity and inclusion.
Lastly, Outler encouraged women to speak up and ask for exactly what they want. “If no one knows what you want, mentorship and sponsorship is really difficult without [direction],” she said. “We have to challenge everyone in front of us who could be a potential mentor or sponsor to really help us.”