Purpose: To explore how sponsorship functions as a professional relationship in academic medicine.
Method: The authors conducted semistructured interviews with Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine faculty in 2016: department chairs (sponsors) and faculty participants of an executive leadership development program (protégés). Using editing analysis style, the authors coded interview transcripts for thematic content; a coding framework and themes were derived using an iterative process.
Results: Five themes were identified from 23 faculty interviews (12 sponsors, 11 protégés): (1) Mentorship is different: Sponsorship is episodic and focused on specific opportunities; (2) Effective sponsors are career-established and well-connected talent scouts; (3) Effective protégés rise to the task and remain loyal; (4) Trust, respect, and weighing risks are key to successful sponsorship relationships; (5) Sponsorship is critical to career advancement. Sponsorship is distinct from mentorship, though mentors can be sponsors if highly placed and well connected. Effective sponsors have access to networks and provide unequivocal support when promoting protégés. Effective protégés demonstrate potential and make the most of career-advancing opportunities. Successful sponsorship relationships are based on trust, respect, mutual benefits, and understanding potential risks. Sponsorship is critical to advance to high-level leadership roles. Women are perceived as being less likely to seek sponsorship but as needing the extra support sponsorship provides to be successful.
Conclusions: Sponsorship, in addition to mentorship, is critical for successful career advancement. Understanding sponsorship as a distinct professional relationship may help faculty and academic leaders make more informed decisions about using sponsorship as a deliberate career-advancement strategy.