In corporate America, it’s long been recognized that for high-potential employees, finding a mentor and maintaining a relationship with that mentor is one of the keys to career success. According to a study of over 1,000 corporate professionals, this holds particularly true for women and minorities, more than 75 percent of whom described the mentoring relationship as either "very important or extremely important to their career development."

Unfortunately, mentoring alone, although it has a positive effect on the careers of all corporate professionals who develop a mentor-mentee relationship, doesn’t close the gender/diversity gap.

In fact, another study, of over 4,000 MBA professionals, concludes that men benefit from mentoring more than women and minorities. Somewhat counterintuitively, mentoring actually widens the promotion and compensation gap between men on the one hand and women and minorities on the other. Everyone benefits from a mentor, but men benefit more.

The study ascribes several reasons for this. For one thing, men generally find mentors farther up the corporate food chain. More influential mentors can do more for their mentees.

Another possible reason, pointed to in the study, is that women and especially minorities tend to find mentors like themselves. Disproportionately, women choose women over men and minority members choose a mentor from the same minority.

While these gender and ethnic affinities are helpful in many ways, they also perpetuate compensation and promotion gaps because women and minority mentors exist in a culture where, historically, they’ve been disadvantaged. The unsought result is that if you’re a woman, a minority member or both, choosing someone like you can also mean choosing someone with less influence in the organization.

There are only a few ways around this problem. One solution if you’re a woman or a minority member is to be selective about your mentor — look to find a mentor who’s a senior executive and/or known to be especially influential in your organization.

But that’s not always possible. Another way, one of the most effective, is to have both a mentor and a sponsor.

Mentors vs. Sponsors

A mentor is someone who helps you navigate your corporate culture and who gives you the benefit of their experience by offering advice and support. This is where the gender and ethnic affinity of mentor and mentee can be very helpful. Your mentor understands your challenges and how to deal with them from their own experience.

A sponsor, on the other hand, is a senior level executive who promotes your interests. A sponsor is a person with the authority to give you access to other high-level executives and who has the authority and influence to directly impact promotions and other career advancements, such as a high-level assignment that calls attention to you and establishes you as a "high-potential" employee.

A mentor helps you become a more valuable employee; a sponsor makes that value visible to others in your organization.

Finding a Sponsor

It may initially seem that acquiring a sponsor is a little like the fable of belling the cat — a great idea but how do you go about it?

If your corporation has a sponsorship program — and increasingly corporations do — that makes the process natural and easy. It may be that the program isn’t formally named and structured, but that it’s available through your Human Resources Department. Begin your search by asking a sympathetic HR person how to find your sponsor.

If your corporation doesn’t yet have a sponsoring program, there are other ways of connecting. One good way is to volunteer for assignments that will bring you into contact with higher-level executives.

If through the assignment you establish a relationship with that executive, the next important step is simply to ask for their sponsorship. If that seems too bold (it really isn’t, but it’s understandable that you might feel that way), then ask for advice. If the executive responds sympathetically, on another occasion ask again.

When you get that advice, don’t disappoint. Take it to heart, and act on it, then be sure to let your potential sponsor know. In this way, the relationship will likely develop naturally.

You’ll probably find that this is easier than you’d imagined. Sponsorship, like mentorship, benefits for both parties. Senior executives who develop a reputation for recognizing employee potential are especially valuable C-suite leaders.