Mentorship isn’t enough. To develop productive career relationships, you’ve got to be authentic.
Mentoring, sponsorship, and advocacy initiatives come and go, with a well-known principle underlying all of them: If you match successful, seasoned executives with up-and-coming professionals, especially from groups underrepresented in upper management, you’ll reap many benefits. Juniors, as I call the recipients of career help, grow and receive support in advancing their careers, while seniors revitalize their impact on the business, learn new skills, and gain an understanding of a generation with ambitions, priorities, and challenges different from their own. As a result of this interpersonal magic, organizations not only attract high performers and make the most of their talent but also propel a more diverse group of future leaders up through the ranks.
Unfortunately, mentoring often produces very little magic: Relationships don’t click; seniors and juniors misunderstand each other; advancement opportunities remain hard to come by. Problems like these have only gotten worse in our new era of remote and hybrid work, which has made it more difficult for colleagues to have meaningful personal interactions. Juniors have trouble identifying with their organizations and can’t imagine staying with them for long. Companies continue to struggle to hold on to their employees—and are left wondering what they can do to turn the tide.
Over the past decade I’ve spent a lot of time studying and teaching about developmental relationships and have worked with a range of organizations to help them harness the power of mentoring and sponsorship. I have directed private and public leadership programs designed to aid high-potential women in cultivating productive relationships with senior sponsors in their firms. I’ve conducted interviews and small-group discussions with junior and senior pairs about what worked in their relationships and what didn’t. I’ve also interviewed human resources executives and diversity, equity, and inclusion officers to gain their insights about mentoring and sponsorship programs. One lesson I’ve learned from all this work is the importance of two defining qualities in developmental relationships: public advocacy and relational authenticity.
Public advocacy is a one-way process by which seniors speak up for and use their power to help juniors get career opportunities. It produces visible and measurable outcomes, such as promotions and stretch assignments. Relational authenticity is a two-way process in which both parties—juniors and seniors—share their perspectives and make themselves open to hearing and learning from each other. Juniors get the support and validation they need to take on new challenges, and seniors understand where their juniors’ capabilities and talents lie and care enough about them to put their own reputations on the line.
By trying to democratize access to developmental relationships, companies have stripped them of these defining qualities. In this article I’ll address the barriers to building successful developmental relationships, and what juniors and seniors can do to overcome them.
How Developmental Relationships Lost Their Way
The 20th-century psychologist Daniel Levinson was one of the first to use the term “mentor” to refer to a person who has deep experience and seniority in a world that a more junior person wants to enter.
Levinson and another pioneering psychologist, Kathy Kram, showed that mentors can serve as role models, advisers, teachers, guides, sponsors, protectors, and more. But the greatest benefit mentors can provide to young professionals, both Levinson and Kram suggested, is helping them forge their identities and realize their dreams. They do so by believing in their protégés, blessing or endorsing their ambitions, and creating a supportive space in which they can work toward their goals. The mentors benefit too: They often find that this work fulfills a deep-seated urge to guide people of younger generations.
The relationships that Levinson and Kram studied were multifaceted, transformational, and deeply rewarding. But in the decades that followed, as the demands on senior executives grew and the ranks of juniors became more and more diverse, developmental relationships became increasingly superficial, transactional, and ineffectual—if they existed at all.
When companies institute mentoring-for-all initiatives, developmental relationships are typically stripped to their least common denominator.
To address that problem, organizations responded pragmatically. They implemented mandatory programs that matched seniors with juniors and prescribed ways for seniors to support their partners. Seniors might be responsible for onboarding new recruits and helping them understand the company culture, for example, or they might be called on to teach juniors particular skills within their functional specialty. These limited roles, however, mostly failed to foster authentic relationships.
Gradually the big idea at the heart of mentoring—authentic relationships—got lost, and public advocacy suffered as a result. The armies of seniors tasked with sharing their knowledge, perspectives, and experience often lacked the institutional power needed to usher juniors into key roles, or they didn’t know or care about the juniors enough to expend personal capital on them. The decline in public advocacy was particularly detrimental to juniors from underrepresented groups, who were not promoted at the same rates as their white male counterparts.
How Seniors Can Help
Developmental relationships vary in their effectiveness, depending on their levels of public advocacy and relational authenticity. It’s useful to consider the various ways that seniors give assistance and support by imagining a 2×2 matrix.
When companies institute mentoring-for-all initiatives, developmental relationships are typically stripped to their least common denominator and mainly involve seniors providing instruction to juniors (lower left quadrant). Seniors might share insider or expert information, onboard and advise the juniors, or work with them to become more effective or satisfied in their current roles. Although this help is valuable, it rarely produces a deep bond between the two parties, and seniors tend to have no personal stake in the juniors’ success or advancement.
Some seniors primarily offer emotional support (lower right quadrant). They serve as role models and provide validation, acceptance, encouragement, and friendship to the junior. The two form a mutually satisfying relationship in which each party feels heard, understood, and endorsed by the other, and each experiences a growing sense of competence, confidence, and self-worth. Again, this type of relational authenticity is immensely valuable, but the partnership will fall short in the absence of public advocacy.
In other cases, seniors focus on career advancement (upper left quadrant), connecting their juniors with influential colleagues, providing high-visibility opportunities, or advocating for promotions—all of which is beneficial to the junior. Without the deeper developmental support necessary to forge a professional identity, however, the junior may be ill prepared to take the leap to a bigger role.
What’s optimal for both parties is a relationship characterized by what I call authentic sponsorship (upper right quadrant), in which public advocacy and relational authenticity coexist in vital and mutually enhancing ways. A senior provides instruction and career advancement help to the junior, and both individuals benefit from building a relationship that offers opportunities for personal growth.
Consider the relationship between Harold, a senior mergers and acquisitions executive, and Naomi, a corporate lawyer. Early in their relationship, Harold set clear expectations about punctuality and preparation for their meetings, and Naomi took care to meet them. They both invested time and effort in getting to know each other, and in doing so they developed mutual trust. That bond allowed Harold to candidly express ideas that he knew might be difficult for Naomi to hear, and it allowed Naomi to appreciate the value of those ideas and push back as necessary. As their relationship developed, Harold became increasingly confident in Naomi’s skills and abilities and began putting his network to work for her. That support ultimately helped her land a big role as the company’s general counsel.
But Harold did more than just help Naomi get the job. He worked with her to clarify her goals and build the confidence she needed to move to the general counsel level. When she confided in him that, as the mother of young children, she was daunted by the prospect of taking on such a stretch position, he helped her see that she was ready. “He said, ‘You have what it takes,’” Naomi told me. “‘You know the clients, you have the experience, you’ll be perfect for the role.’ That vote of confidence and that kick is what I needed.”
Harold and Naomi were able to develop relational authenticity for three main reasons: They shared their perspectives and feelings in a candid and open way; they boosted each other’s feelings of competence, confidence, and self-worth; and they not only learned from each other but also acted on what they learned.
The kind of sponsorship that Naomi benefited from can be hard for women to come by. A 2016 McKinsey/LeanIn study found that women were less likely than men to report that a senior leader outside their direct management chain had helped them get a promotion or challenging new assignment, even though women were more likely to have been assigned a formal mentor. Women of color had even more difficulty getting this support, the study found, with many saying they had had few bosses who promoted their work contributions to others, helped them navigate organizational politics, or connected them to the informal networks that propel high-potentials forward. This scarcity of sponsorship doesn’t just affect women: A recent investigation found that only 5% of high-potential Black employees had sponsors, compared with 20% of their white peers. Similarly, only 5% of high-earning Latino professionals in large companies said they had sponsors.
Many companies use formal sponsorship initiatives to address those issues, but, as noted, they’ve typically generated disappointing results. Effective sponsorship can’t be created by fiat; rather, it tends to evolve naturally along a spectrum, with seniors increasing their public advocacy for juniors as the relationship deepens. If both parties enter a relationship with this sponsorship spectrum in mind, they can work to align their goals, and if their relationship stalls, they can more easily understand what has gone wrong.
The Path to Authentic Sponsorship
Let’s now consider how developmental relationships can evolve naturally through five stages toward authentic sponsorship.
At the least publicly committed end of the spectrum is what many refer to as a mentor: a senior who privately provides advice and support, with no more at stake than the time invested. This is where most formally assigned relationships begin, and it is unfortunately where most remain. Of course, many assigned relationships don’t even get this far: Pairs might have a 10-minute virtual coffee chat and check the box as “done.”
As the parties get to know each other, a senior may start to play a strategizer role, sharing insider knowledge about how the junior might advance. At this point, the pair typically begins talking about developmental gaps that might impede the junior’s progress. Whether the relationship continues to progress depends increasingly on how well each person gives and receives feedback and the extent to which both parties agree on the junior’s readiness for advancement.
In my work, I’ve found that junior men make it to the strategizer stage more often than junior women do. Men’s mentors tend to focus on planning moves and identifying gatekeepers on the path to a predetermined role, whereas women’s mentors are more inclined to help women understand themselves, their preferred styles of operating, and ways they might need to change to advance. Finding a senior strategizer is vital for women and members of other underrepresented groups, all of whom are apt to get stuck in support roles. For example, many of the Black executives studied by David A. Thomas, now the president of Morehouse College, had the backing of strategizers who kept them on the path to top management and away from attractive promotions that would have actually prevented long-term advancement.
Seniors must distinguish authenticity dilemmas—when you feel faced with a choice between being yourself and doing what it takes to succeed—from confidence problems.
The next stage along the spectrum is the connector, who advocates publicly for the junior, makes introductions to key stakeholders, and includes the junior in events or meetings that provide contact with people who might prove instrumental for career advancement. This assistance gets publicly interpreted as an endorsement, which gives juniors new visibility at a senior level and opens the door for networking upward. Seniors also connect juniors to influential people in their own networks, which allows them to validate their impressions, collect feedback about the juniors, and correct unfair criticisms.
At the next stage, the opportunity giver seeks out high-visibility projects or roles for the junior to take on. A senior might ask a junior to give a key presentation, run an important meeting, tackle a project, or serve on a task force or an external board. Arranging for such opportunities is a good way for seniors to test and stretch juniors, expand their visibility, and enable the juniors to grow and gain confidence before they take on bigger roles. It also sends a message that the junior is a high performer, bolstering the young person’s credibility throughout the organization.
At the most publicly committed end of the spectrum is the sponsor. When the senior and the junior have developed a meaningful, rewarding relationship, and the senior is committed to the junior’s long-term success, they have reached the zone of authentic sponsorship.
Stuck in the Middle
Developmental relationships don’t always move along the sponsorship spectrum in the same way, and the time it takes to transition from role to role will vary. But no matter how those relationships unfold, if they’ve been mandated from the top, they tend to get stuck in the middle of the spectrum. Maybe the match isn’t right, or the pair received insufficient guidance on expectations. Sometimes juniors aren’t ready for more-challenging opportunities, or seniors can’t figure out how to provide them. Most often, though, one or both people in the pair have failed to pay explicit attention to the relationship’s authentic development.
Consider the relationship between Jim, a senior executive, and Susana, a high-potential Hispanic-heritage employee. (Jim and Susana are a composite of pairs assigned as part of a formal program that aimed to help more women enter the senior ranks.) They began their relationship with a series of conversations in which they discussed topics such as Susana’s ambitions and inflection points in Jim’s career. Jim was generous with his time, strategizing with Susana about possible career steps and making email introductions to influential people at his level. But the relationship ran out of steam after a few conversations. Jim wasn’t sure how to help Susana further, especially because he felt it was too soon since her last promotion for her to pursue a new role.
Susana was grateful for Jim’s support but didn’t feel that she and Jim were really connecting. Most of his advice involved engaging in more self-promotion, which made her uncomfortable. She tried to raise the issue, but instead of hearing her, Jim seemed to dismiss her concerns and gave her a pep talk, at which point she shut down. Jim, for his part, interpreted Susana’s withdrawal as being resistant to his feedback, so he stopped sharing his thoughts candidly. Soon their relationship stagnated.
There are many reasons that pairs like Jim and Susana struggle to forge a productive bond while others like Naomi and Harold progress smoothly along the spectrum. My research suggests that several common diversity trip wires can foil the best intentions.
Diversity Trip Wires
Developmental relationships are rife with the potential for misunderstandings and setbacks as individuals get to know each other. Pervasive biases in organizations and in society can make things even worse, creating additional hurdles for forging authentic relationships between people of differing gender, race, ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation. Pairs should be aware of five trip wires, which can make for hazardous terrain.
“Like me” bias.
As humans, we tend to gravitate toward people like ourselves, so it can be difficult to form developmental relationships that cross dimensions of difference. Overcoming the “like me” bias is especially challenging in the workplace, where white men still hold most of the power and have the influence required to advocate successfully for juniors. Most assigned pairs, like Jim and Susana, have to contend from the start with differences in generation and rank, often alongside cultural and other dissimilarities. Juniors and seniors need to understand that they may have to invest a lot of time and energy in getting to know their partners before they’ll discover what they have in common.
To develop stronger relationships and find points of deep similarity, juniors and seniors need to open up about their lives outside of work.
But the investment is worth it. Seniors who share values and beliefs with juniors tend to provide more emotional support and career-advancement help, and both parties are more likely to characterize their bond as high quality. The trick is to move beyond assumptions based on demographic differences and instead seek out sources of deep similarity, which are often based on common values, beliefs, and experiences.
How can juniors and seniors increase the likelihood of finding common ground? By meeting more frequently; by preparing carefully for their conversations; by asking open-ended questions about the other person’s background, interests, goals, and perspectives; and by always being ready to listen.
When we code other people as “not like us,” what we hear from them is less likely to resonate for us as true, valuable, or comprehensible. Study after study shows that it’s easy for juniors to feel, as Susana did, that the career advice they get doesn’t make sense for them. Seniors might feel, as Jim did, that they have no useful role to play or that juniors aren’t receptive to feedback.
To interrupt this negative cycle, seniors must learn to distinguish authenticity dilemmas—the predicaments that arise when you feel faced with a choice between being yourself and doing what it takes to succeed—from confidence problems and commitment issues. If seniors can’t make this distinction, they can unwittingly make their juniors, especially individuals from underrepresented groups, feel that to succeed at work they must suppress important aspects of who they are. McGill University professor Patricia Hewlin calls this putting on “facades of conformity.”
Juniors, for their part, have to cultivate a growth mindset and recognize that trying out unfamiliar behaviors and styles is not the same thing as being inauthentic. Moving to the next level in a relationship or an organization often means going beyond one’s comfort zone, which is easier to do in a supportive relationship. Morehouse’s Thomas found that when white seniors share their own experiences and offer emotional support to Black juniors, the juniors feel more emotionally connected than when the seniors simply provide instruction. That connection gives a junior the courage to try out behaviors that might feel uncomfortable but are a prerequisite for learning.
It can be difficult for people to give and receive constructive, actionable feedback, and doing so can be particularly challenging in developmental relationships across differences. When seniors worry that their comments might be perceived as racist or sexist (a frequent concern of white male managers working with employees from underrepresented backgrounds), they often default to protective hesitation, censoring themselves out of fear that they might upset an employee or make themselves look bad. In failing to engage fully and openly, however, they deprive juniors of valuable opportunities to learn and grow—especially women, who are less likely to be given concrete feedback that’s both actionable and tied to business outcomes.
Even when seniors are not directly responsible for providing feedback to their juniors, they still play a critical role in interpreting and influencing others’ views of a junior’s potential. They can do this in several ways: by talking to the juniors about feedback they receive so that they can act on it; meeting with juniors’ direct managers, possibly alongside HR representatives to ensure that everybody agrees on developmental needs; talking about their juniors with their peers to boost their visibility and shape how they are considered in succession-planning and talent-management processes; and interrupting any bias and stereotypical assessments they observe.
Juniors need to demonstrate that they care deeply about their own growth and advancement. They can dispel some protective hesitation by clearly conveying to seniors that they really want feedback and by inviting them to speak candidly. Juniors also need to educate themselves about how bias can seep into developmental feedback—and how they can counter its effects. Having this awareness can empower them to play a more active role in the partnership.
The “bring your whole self to work” paradox.
To develop stronger relationships and find points of deep similarity, juniors and seniors need to open up about their lives outside of work. Individuals from underrepresented groups—no matter how senior they are—often hesitate to share, though, because they worry that personal disclosure might make their differences more conspicuous and ultimately damage the relationship. Recent research by Wharton professor Rachel Arnett, however, finds that rich and meaningful conversations about their racial and ethnic backgrounds with members of majority groups actually increases inclusive behavior.
What Constitutes a High-Quality Working Relationship?
Recent research, compiled by Jane Dutton and Belle Rose Ragins, has focused on defining the qualities and outcomes of positive developmental relationships, which share four key features:
They are reciprocal and mutual: Both parties give and receive.
They grow with openness and self-disclosure: Both parties share their thoughts, perspectives, and feelings candidly, while being open to those of the other person.
They produce confidence and validation: Because each party feels heard, understood, and endorsed by the other, each experiences a growing sense of competence, confidence, and self-worth.
They motivate action: Those feelings of confidence and validation inspire both parties to not only learn from their interactions but also act on the lessons.
The confidence conundrum.
When I ask juniors what they value in their successful developmental relationships, most mention seniors who helped them build the confidence to go for stretch roles. For years this was the mainstream approach for coaching, training, and mentoring women. Recent research, however, has shown that evaluators mistakenly use displays of confidence as a proxy for competence, particularly when assessing women’s readiness for promotion. That’s exactly what Jim did early on, mistaking Susana’s authenticity dilemma for a confidence deficit.
But the same evaluators who encourage juniors to be more confident are also often put off by declarations of ambition when juniors violate the norms for what’s considered “appropriate” behavior. For women and individuals from underrepresented groups in particular, this can be a diabolically fine line to walk.
This tension also raises an obvious and important question: Should confidence in developmental relationships be earned or granted? How can juniors gain the confidence to pursue new opportunities if seniors won’t help them without first seeing signs of confidence? This chicken-and-egg scenario inadvertently sets in motion a cycle of inauthentic interaction that prevents both parties from growing and learning. That has to change.
. . .
Let’s face it: We become who we are with help and support from those around us, and we all yearn for authenticity in our significant relationships. The same needs and desires underlie developmental relationships in the workplace. But all too often relationships between juniors and seniors are transactional, imposed from the top, and ill-suited to foster transformational personal and professional growth.
We can do better. If we want to realize the full benefits of developmental relationships—and ensure that members of underrepresented groups share equally in them—we need to create the organizational conditions that will allow a new model of authentic sponsorship to emerge.
A version of this article appeared in the November–December 2022 issue of Harvard Business Review.