What’s the difference between a mentor, a sponsor, an ally, and an advocate? I want to help underrepresented colleagues succeed but am confused about what these terms mean.
You already signaled your intent: you want to do the right thing by helping underrepresented colleagues succeed. Let’s stop here and think about what it would look like to see your underrepresented colleagues succeed.
STEP 1: Ask, what does “success” mean for your colleagues in this context?
(If you don’t know, start by getting to know them better. Ask questions. Listen.)
Success might mean:
- Your colleague receives a well-deserved promotion
- Your colleague’s ideas are heard and valued in meetings
- Your colleague knows they are being compensated equitably
- Your colleague is given stretch assignments and responsibilities
- Your colleague is invited to high-level meetings with senior leaders
- Your colleague receives opportunities for professional development
- Your colleague feels safe to express their opinions with peers and leaders
The key with this exercise is to center your colleagues in their success. If it were a story, they would be the protagonist, not you.
STEP 2: Once you have a working definition of success, reverse engineer the steps needed to achieve it.
Where and how does your position of power intersect with these steps? It’s at these points of intersection where you can lend support.
Support might look like:
- Calling out bias when it occurs in the workplace
- Actively speaking up for your colleague in meetings
- Introducing your colleague to your professional network
- Asking to hear your colleague’s opinion in group settings
- Advocating for a company-wide pay equity audit or greater pay transparency
- Supporting equitable workplace policies (such as the diverse-slate approach to hiring or the removal of binding arbitration clauses)
Now, back to your original question: what does it mean to be a mentor, a sponsor, an ally, and an advocate? There are technical definitions for each label, with each definition spanning the DEI continuum. (You can read more about these definitions here.) However, I urge you not to get caught up in what to call yourself.
Focus on your stated goal: to help underrepresented colleagues succeed. What proof, what data, do you need to verify that you reached your goal? Because at the end of the day, the proof (i.e. seeing your colleagues succeed) matters more than what you call yourself.