Much has been written on the value of mentorship in medicine, including the importance of nurturing a strong mentor/mentee relationship to navigate the often challenging road to becoming a physician and enjoying a fulfilling medical career.
While formal and informal physician mentoring programs are effective in their own ways, sponsorship in medicine is a key — and often overlooked — component to professional development.
What Is Sponsorship in Medicine?
In medicine, the common refrain is that many trainees and early-career physicians are over-mentored and under-sponsored. Mentorship’s flexibility is part of what makes it ubiquitous: Mentors can be at any level and don’t necessarily need connections or leadership positions to be effective. Mentoring relationships can be structured or casual, with mentors offering everything from guidance, advice and behavior modeling to concrete opportunities for professional development.
Sponsors, on the other hand, are typically highly placed in an organization and have influence at some level. Compared to mentorship, sponsorship requires more active and intentional initiatives, not only offering guidance but also advocating, networking and providing connections. More likely to accelerate their beneficiaries’ careers, sponsors don’t just help chart the path forward — they help clear it.
In a paper published in Academic Medicine, a team from Johns Hopkins explores the importance of sponsorship in medicine. The authors found that sponsorship is typically more episodic and focused on specific opportunities. The most effective sponsors are those who are established in their careers and well-connected. Trust, respect and weighing risks are all keys to successful sponsorship relationships.
What about physician coaching? Some consider coaching to be more task-oriented and driven by performance. Coaches help develop skills, define career goals and plan a path forward with feedback and guidance. A coach can also be a sponsor, of course. But the purpose of a coach is to mold and direct as opposed to pushing the physician forward by providing opportunities. A coach can be extremely valuable, especially when working toward self-improvement and self-reflection on how to achieve goals.
What Effective Sponsorship in Medicine Looks Like
The Johns Hopkins team found that while sponsorship and mentorship are distinct, the categories aren’t mutually exclusive, and mentors can be valuable sponsors. This means there’s some overlap between effective mentorship and effective sponsorship. Excellent mentors understand their mentees’ strengths and limitations. They also think of ways to suggest their mentees for opportunities, connecting them with important change agents and stakeholders while advising how to navigate challenges.
There are several simple ways mentors can also be impactful sponsors.
Recommendations for Opportunities
The simplest is to recommend mentees for committee memberships, speaking opportunities and other leadership positions. A sponsor can also endorse a colleague or junior faculty for opportunities that they themselves have been offered but aren’t able to fulfill.
Nominating mentees for awards is another great way mentors can also be sponsors. While many sponsors have a position that allows them to make impactful connections for individuals, it’s possible to sponsor colleagues at any level by suggesting them for a role, leadership opportunity or promotion or nominating them for an award.
Inspiration and Encouragement
Effective sponsors also encourage their mentees to apply for opportunities that may seem out of reach. Many women in medicine struggle with imposter syndrome and turn down positions and opportunities due to feelings of inadequacy. Effective sponsors guide and advocate in these scenarios to help their mentees take on opportunities they may not otherwise have considered.
Improving Sponsorship for Women in Medicine
As Dr. Margaret Ann Pisani writes in Doximity’s Op-Med blog, women in medicine are often perceived to be less likely to seek sponsorship opportunities, though sponsorship has been shown to be critical for successful career advancement. While women now make up the majority of medical students, as the Association of American Medical Colleges reports, they’re still underrepresented in leadership, publications, awards and professional advancement. Systemic issues continue to contribute to this disparity in healthcare; among them, women in academic medicine have greater challenges finding mentors and sponsors than their male colleagues, as Harvard Business Review notes.
The solution must be multifaceted. One component would be to improve mentorship and sponsorship for women in medicine, beginning as early as medical school. A study in JAMA Internal Medicine shows that women are less likely to receive sponsorship experiences such as being recommended as a panelist at a national meeting, writing an editorial or serving on an editorial board or national committee. It’s essential that sponsorship for women is not only encouraged but that intentional steps are also taken to ensure there’s a way to create effective sponsorship and mentorship relationships.