Global Mobility Managers: Should You Be Mentors or Sponsors?

It can happen to any global mobility manager at any point in their career, especially if they are managing a significant number of direct reports or assignees. They get asked this question: “Would you be willing to sponsor or mentor this assignee?” 

Sometimes, an HR director or another member of the C-suite poses the question. At other times, it is an earnest assignee who comes to them directly, in the hope of advancing their careers. But, all good intentions aside from all parties, the global mobility manager should understand what exactly is being asked of them before making any kind of commitment.

This happens especially when it comes to understanding the fine line between mentorship and its professional kin, sponsorship. The global mobility manager might commit to one, not knowing that the one making the request actually means the other. This confusion frequently occurs when none of those involved — the global mobility manager, the assignee, and/or the executive — truly understands what both roles mean.

Here’s one short but important way to make that distinction: mentors are guides, teachers, and counselors, while sponsors are investors in the assignee’s professional development and eventual success. As SLAC also puts it in another way, mentors tutor and act as coaches to mentees, while sponsors take on proteges.

Both mentors and sponsors put in a lot of time and effort into nurturing the growth of their respective charges. They both act as sounding boards and listening ears to their assignee, provide them the skills and resources to improve their craft, give suggestions during difficulties, and show them opportunities that they can explore. 

But when it comes to having an actual stake in the career of the assignee, it is the sponsor who put themselves on the line. As described by TLNT, a mentor can show the assignee a way to fast-track their promotion — but it is the sponsor who actually opens the door and makes the necessary recommendations to their own superiors that the assignee is worthy of that new higher post.

Glassdoor describes the risk the sponsor assumes by saying that they put “more skin in the game.” A sponsor takes a chance on their protege by giving them more responsibilities to prove themselves. They defend them in front of their own peers in case someone in the organization makes an unfounded detraction against the assignee. They enlarge the assignee’s connections by introducing them to their own network of peers and partners. That’s why the protege should be more inclined to follow the sponsor’s direction, as compared to the mentor-mentee relationship. A mentee will always be at liberty to not heed their mentor’s advice; there is nothing that the mentor can do to compel them to follow it. That is not the same case with a sponsor-protege relationship:  if the protege fails in a project, for example, and burn themselves and their reputation, their sponsor can go down in flames with them.

Corporations that are always in a state of accelerated development, such as the tech hubs in Silicon Valley, usually have a mentoring or sponsorship program to ensure the development of new generations of leaders. 

Global mobility managers will always be asked to be part of this process. But when the time comes (and it will), they should take a good hard look at themselves and reflect:  “What role do I really want to play? Which of them can I do, given the amount of resources available to me and the organization? And given my own capabilities, can I truly act as a commanding general, or be better off as a guru?”