Mentors, Sponsors, and their Place in Academic Medicine

Kathryn Huggett, Ph.D.
Kathryn Huggett, Ph.D.

Mentoring programs are now a fixture in many workplaces, including academic medicine.  The increased number and visibility of programs has helped to raise awareness of the need to provide support for faculty throughout their career.  Decades of professional career development efforts have not, however, increased the proportion of women and minorities in executive positions in medical schools and NCI-designated cancer centers.1-2 This also remains true for “C-suite” leadership positions in corporations, as illustrated in Sheryl Sandberg’s widely-discussed book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead . 3 Sandberg is chief operating officer for Facebook and her book and commentary drew renewed attention to disparities in leadership ranks.

Traditional mentoring still has a place in the professional development portfolio, but two new approaches, sponsorship and developmental networks, are demonstrating greater potential.  Sponsorship is a type of mentorship “in which the mentor goes beyond giving feedback and advice and uses his or her influence with senior executives to advocate for the mentee.”4 This differs from the traditional model of mentoring where the mentor offers feedback, advice, and psychosocial support.  Sponsors are senior leaders who provide protégés with exposure to other leaders. Sponsors also “ensure protégés are considered for promising opportunities and challenging assignments.” 4 The distinction may seem subtle but the outcomes are not. In surveys of high-potential graduates of MBA programs, more women than men report having mentors. However, while both men and women reported the same number of lateral career moves over a multi-year period, a follow-up study found men received 15 percent more promotions. 4 The sponsorship approach offers promise for academic medicine, especially for roles that require appointments rather than search committees. 5 Sponsorship efforts, especially those that are formalized and hold sponsors accountable, have the potential to improve workforce diversity and also enrich the professional experience of sponsors. 6 Sponsors develop a reputation for talent identification and derive satisfaction from learning from the protégé’s perspective. 6

The second new approach to mentoring calls for building developmental networks, or a small group of trusted advisors who offer mentoring. This approach builds on the premise that in today’s complex and ever-changing workplace, a single mentor cannot advise on all topics at all times.  The composition of the group may change over time, but the critical component is “a high degree of mutual learning and trust in which both individuals give and receive various kinds of informational, emotional, and strategic support.” 7 Unlike a sponsorship approach to mentoring, a network can include both senior and junior colleagues. This model also promotes learning across the organization and may foster innovation. 7

Perhaps the most important message is that there are multiple approaches and models for mentoring, and each have unique features and intended outcomes. Organizations, mentors and mentees should be explicit in stating expectations –and open to considering more than one model. The Teaching Academy here at the University of Vermont College of Medicine recognizes and draws upon the multiple models for mentorship. We are working hard to make sure that all faculty have the support they need as educators, and that we’re providing every opportunity to develop mentors and sponsors in our ranks. In the fall of 2015 we launched five new mentoring groups on the topics of teaching; leadership; educational scholarship; work and life balance; and reappointment, promotion, and tenure. In February 2016 we hosted a panel talk on mentorship and sponsorship with former Vermont Governor Madeleine Kunin and Department of Medicine Chair Polly Parsons, M.D.  It led to some interesting questions and great discussion about leadership development and the myriad ways we can help faculty, residents, and students succeed.

Larner Endowed Professor of Medical Education Kathryn Huggett, Ph.D., is director of the UVM College of Medicine Teaching Academy.


  1. The State of Women in Academic Medicine: The Pipeline and Pathways to Leadership, 2013 – 2014. American Association of Medical Colleges. Accessible at: Accessed July 5, 2016.
  2. National Cancer Institute. Office of Cancer Centers. Cancer Centers List. http:// Accessed July 5, 2016.
  3. Sandberg S. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf; 2013.
  4. Ibarra H, Carter NM, Silva C. Why men still get more promotions than women. Harv Bus Rev. 2010; 88:80-85.
  5. Travis EL, Doty L, Helitzer DL. Sponsorship: A path to the academic medicine C-suite for women faculty? Acad Med. 2013;88:1414-1417.
  6. Hewlett SA, Marshall M, Sherbin L. The relationship you need to get right: How to be an effective sponsor – and a good protégé – throughout your career. Harv Bus Rev. 2011;89:131-134.
  7. Kram KE, Higgins MC. A new approach to mentoring. The Wall Street Journal. 2008 Sep 22;22.


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