October 1, 2019

Beyond Mentoring to Sponsoring

It was nearly twenty years ago that I had the good fortune of being sponsored for the first time in my academic career. Dr. Hernan Gomez was, and still is, an emergency medicine attending at the University of Michigan and a national leader in toxicology. He served as my mentor first, involving me in his Loxosceles reclusa research while I was junior faculty. He then became my sponsor, unbeknownst to me at the time, bringing me front and center to the academic EM table. This ultimately resulted in my first national presentation at SAEM in 2000. Fast forward to 2008. I relocated to Charleston and was fortunate to benefit from the mentoring and sponsorship of Dr. Christine Carr at the Medical University of South Carolina. I profited greatly from her strong and passionate dedication to me and to fellow female faculty, propelling me forward professionally. Eventually, her guidance and dedication culminated in my own promotion to professor, following in her footsteps.

You are likely familiar with the term mentoring and its benefits. It has been a topic in the forefront of medicine lately, though modern mentoring was first introduced to the nursing field long ago in the 1990s. Mentoring is when a typically junior mentee and more senior mentor form a dynamic, reciprocal work relationship to promote the career growth of both. In short, a mentor serves a parental role to the mentee. Mentoring has been shown to accelerate promotion, increase research productivity, result in higher income, and correlate with increased career and personal satisfaction, to name a few.

A sponsor is very different than a mentor, though one may serve as both to a junior faculty. The term sponsorship describes advocacy on behalf of high-potential junior person by powerful senior leaders that is critical for the career advancement of young professionals.[1] A sponsor promotes an individual, not only in their immediate department, but also within the medical community as a whole. A sponsor talks to the right people, at the right time, and in the right place. They do this while also providing protection from potential misuse and negative interactions in academics and medicine in general. In short, a sponsor is a sword and a shield.

A sponsor will usually seek out an already successful and highly motivated individual. A sponsor’s job isn’t to groom an individual, nor to mentor them. Rather, it is to position them for further exposure and growth. As such, getting sponsored isn’t something that simply falls into a sponsee’s lap. It takes hard work and dedication to get to the position where a leader is willing to become one’s sponsor. After all, a sponsor’s reputation is on the line. Furthermore, the sponsor typically doesn’t benefit directly or personally from the interaction. Sponsoring oftentimes occurs out of view and behind the scenes, solely benefitting the sponsee and the program or project for which they are involved.

Does the data support that sponsorship is effective? Patton, et al published an article in JAMA in 2017 wherein researchers surveyed NIH-mentored career development grant awardees.[2] They found that sponsorship correlated with successful (vs non-successful) career for both men (73% vs 58%) and women (59% vs 45%). Interestingly, in this same article, men reported more sponsorship than women. As such, sponsorship may be more useful for female mentees who may be otherwise overlooked. As Madeline Albright said, “There is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women.” While I may not have chosen to phrase it quite as harshly, I strongly believe that women especially need to mentor, advocate, connect, coach, and ultimately, sponsor other women.

Later-career colleagues, it is now time to sponsor the junior faculty, especially women, in emergency medicine and other specialties. You have worked hard and likely benefitted from sponsoring, as I did from Drs. Gomez and Carr. You hold high leadership positions and are able to use your influence. Seek out those individuals who have high potential to sponsor. Recommend them to deliver presentations, serve on national panels, and become reviewers and editors. Nominate them for awards and committee leadership positions. When possible, protect them from inequalities and negative associations.

Pay it forward. Bring our next generation to the table. Help them navigate successful careers and ultimately become effective sponsors for the generation that follows.

[1] Hewlett S, Peraino K, Sherbin L, Sumberg K; the Center for Work-Life Policy. The sponsor effect: breaking through the last glass ceiling. Learn More - Harvard Business Review Research Report 2010. Published December 2010.

[2] Patton EW, Griffith KA, Jones RD, et al. 2017. Differences in mentor-mentee sponsorship in male vs female recipients of national institutes of health grants. JAMA Intern Med. 2017;177(4): 580-582. Learn More - Accessed October 14, 2019

By Diann M. Krywko, MD, FACEP

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