Q&A with Karen Witts - “Mentors and Sponsors—Your Talent Needs Both”

DEIDiversity & CultureBoard and CEO AdvisoryHuman Resources Officers
Article Icon Interview
David Mills
March 06, 2018
5 min read
DEIDiversity & CultureBoard and CEO AdvisoryHuman Resources Officers
Why are mentorship and sponsorship of talent so important? What do successful mentors and sponsors look like? 


Karen Witts-interview.jpg

"Mentors and sponsors—your talent needs both"— David Mills interviews Karen Witts, CFO at Kingfisher, on the importance of mentoring and sponsoring diverse talent. 

"The barriers for diverse talent are a lot higher; mentoring and sponsorship are crucial to overcoming those barriers." 

Karen is chief financial officer at the FTSE 100 home improvement retailer Kingfisher. Kingfisher is a leading company in terms of gender parity, with one of the most gender-balanced senior leadership teams in the FTSE 100. Prior to joining Kingfisher, she served as chief financial officer, Africa, Middle East, Asia and Asia Pacific for Vodafone and before that spent 11 years in finance director and general management roles at BT. Karen also holds a non-executive role at Imperial Brands, where she chairs the Audit Committee. 

Karen has played a vital role in developing the management team's gender balance at Kingfisher, as well as ensuring a pipeline of female talent coming through the organization from the shop floor to the most senior roles. She stresses the importance of mentoring and sponsorship as a way of driving progress.  

David Mills: What are the differences between mentorship and sponsorship? 

Karen Witts: In many ways, mentorship and sponsorship are similar, in that both require the active engagement of both sides to get the best out of the relationship. You can't do either in a half-hearted or passive way; otherwise, the relationship is not impactful. 

However, there are fundamental differences. Sponsorship is, by its nature, public, while a mentoring relationship can actually be as discreet and private as is desired. Mentoring can cover a whole range of activities but is ultimately about one-to-one meetings, where you really get to understand the person you are mentoring. An effective mentor will often strive to uncover a person's potential and even help them to realize and release that potential, which can be a very private exercise. A truly impactful mentor will know your strengths as well as your weaknesses and not be afraid to constructively criticize. 

David Mills: And sponsorship? 

Karen Witts:  Sponsorship is public and is really about marketing. That means that sponsors must really believe in the capabilities and competencies of their sponsees in order to truly endorse them, as, ultimately, they are putting their personal reputation on the line. 

David Mills: And, given those differences, do you need mentors and sponsors at different times in your life? 

Karen Witts:  Certainly you might want them at different times in your life. Thinking back to my own personal experience, the times that I most benefited from mentoring, I was not necessarily ready for a sponsor. 

David Mills: What about specifically for diverse talent? 

Karen Witts:  Sadly, the barriers for diverse talent in organizations are a lot higher, and this inevitably means that mentoring and sponsorship are crucial, not only to help overcome those barriers, but to ensure career progression through creating visibility. However, organizations must be very aware that this depends entirely on the individuals. 

David Mills: How can organizations embed mentorship and sponsorship programs into their cultures? 

Karen Witts:  Organizations should build a culture of mentorship and sponsorship where talented individuals feel comfortable choosing their own mentors and sponsors. If this is too process-driven, it can be counterproductive, for example, when organizations assign mentor relationships. When someone asks me to be their mentor, I always suggest that we get to know one another over a coffee beforehand to see if it works. There has to be real chemistry around the relationship, and often when organizations make this too process-oriented, they lose that chemistry. 

The same can be said for sponsorship. Organizations should encourage talented individuals to find sponsors, particular high-potential executives, but the relationship must remain organic. 

David Mills:  What kind of structure works? 

Karen Witts: Instead of embedding mentorship and sponsorship into strict programs, organizations should simply identify groups of people who are interested in the opportunity and connect them. Then the chemistry just has to materialize by itself. This will happen if organizations maintain a dialogue on the importance of mentorship and sponsorship as a way of developing talent and assisting career development. 

David Mills:  What role has sponsoring and mentoring played in your own career? 

Karen Witts: It has been invaluable, and it continues to be. One of my sponsors, from years ago, really took a chance on me and saw my future potential, even when it wasn't that clear to me. What made it such a helpful relationship was that it was there not only when I needed active "marketing" but also when I needed to learn from mistakes that I had made. In that way, it crossed the divide between a mentoring and sponsorship relationship. Ultimately, what has helped me throughout my career is that really special knowledge that someone is looking out for you. 

Thank you, Karen.