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Today, we get into sponsors. Whether I am out speaking at an event, or coaching a client, one of the most frequently asked questions I get on careers is, “What’s the difference between a mentor and a sponsor?” Just in case there is any confusion, a mentor is a person who will advise you and share their knowledge, whereas a sponsor is someone who will advocate for you on your behalf, using their influence and power to do so. Whilst anyone in an organization can act as your mentor, a sponsor must be in a position of power, have great influence, or highly placed in the business, or they won’t have the clout to pull you through the hierarchy or lobby for your visibility and success.
As Sylvia Ann Hewlett stated in a recent Forbes article, “If mentors help define the dream, sponsors are the dream-enablers. Sponsors deliver: They make you visible to leaders within the company— and to top people outside as well. They connect you to career opportunities and provide air cover when you encounter trouble. When it comes to opening doors, they don’t stop with one promotion: They’ll see you to the threshold of power.”
When it comes to women in business, a study by Catalyst found that men tend to find mentors in powerful positions who also sponsor them, making the relationships much more valuable, whereas women are most frequently advised through mentoring but not advocated for. Rather than only advising you or providing advice, a sponsor is someone who goes into bat for you, this could mean advocating for you to get assigned to a hot project or land a promotion, helping you with visibility and political currency, ensuring you are on the succession bench for career making roles—or speaking positively about you when you’re not in the room.
Whilst sponsors can play a pivotal role in helping you advance, a common misconception I find with the women I work with is that they think that is all sponsors are relevant for. But there are many other aspects of your brand and career that the right sponsor can advocate for. It could be helping you negotiate work flexibility, advocating for study opportunities, sponsoring a sideways move, or navigating a move back into the workforce with a secure reentry point. Sponsors can help you progress in ways that are meaningful to you, they actively support and promote your personal brand, give you additional credibility, and have skin in the game for your career success.
A sponsor takes an interest in your career not out of altruism, but as an important investment in their own career, organization or vision. A sponsor will often look at their sponsee like a protégée, and will be deeply invested in their success as it holds career or political currency for them. Your role is to earn their investment in you by delivering outstanding results, building their brand or legacy and generally making them look good. Sponsorship is a strategic alliance, a long-range quid pro-quo.
If you speak with any senior professional, male or female, they will tell you stories of how a particular person sponsored them into a senior role, supported them through a career making (or breaking) situation, or advocated on their behalf. What you may not hear, however, is their use of the sponsor language, as many people, especially women, don’t make the link between a senior person’s support and advocacy and sponsorship.
Why does this matter? It matters because there are a number of different types of sponsors, the two most important being those that you already have, even unknown to you, and those that you actively cultivate.
Who is currently sponsoring you?
Think about your career. Who has played a pivotal role in supporting you to get to your current position? If you take a good look, you will notice that there may have been one or more people who have been instrumental. That may have been through helping you on a particular project, advocating for a promotion, championing a pay rise, or instilling just the right amount of confidence.
When I look back on my corporate career, there were three key leaders who were critical in my progression and success. The first was my female boss at GE when I was a young, up and coming marketing leader; she put me in my first management role, championed my work across Asia, and backed me as a future leader in the business.
The second was my managing partner in a global professional services firm. He sponsored me into the business, into my first director role, followed by key global projects and high profile assignments. Then, after an acquisition saw us become part of a global technology company, he sponsored me into the key marketing roles that would shape the next part of my career, including becoming the director of marketing for a multibillion dollar company. And then there was the CEO, who used a significant amount of his own political capital by creating a new executive role for me when I was at a career and life turning point.
Some of these sponsor interactions were known to me at the time, and some were not. The point is that you may already have active sponsors who are helping you in unseen ways. It will help you to identify who your current sponsors are, both inside and outside your organization, and how you can further develop that relationship and support them in return.
Your current sponsor could be your immediate boss, a former manager, a peer you worked with who has moved to another part of the business or outside the company, a current or former client, or a more senior leader who sees political or brand capital in supporting or being aligned to you.
Leveraging your current sponsors is a great place to start in building your career and amplifying your brand currency. Once you have identified them, ensure that they know what your career aspirations are, how they can support you, and what you can do for them in return.
Cultivating new sponsors
Just like going up to someone and asking “Will you be my mentor?” flat out asking someone to be your sponsor can make for an awkward, unfruitful, and potentially embarrassing conversation. You typically don’t just ask for sponsorship, you earn it, but there are ways to cultivate a new sponsor relationship if you think strategically and intentionally about it.
Start by identifying senior leaders who are already aware of your skills and strengths, stand to benefit from your help, and have the clout to move you toward your goal. Consider not whom you report to, but whom your boss reports to. You will spot potential sponsors by their ability to act in favor of your career, which could include connecting you to key people, giving you stretch assignments, offering critical feedback, and promoting your visibility within their networks.
Looking at your career path and what your next step might be, who are the senior people whose support would be a game changer for you? Once you have identified them, work out ways to build a relationship and demonstrate both your capability and your value. In her book Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor, Sylvia Ann Hewlett has these suggestions for navigating a potential sponsor relationship:
Find ways to get in front of your potential sponsor by asking a supportive manager for stretch assignments in your target sponsor’s line of sight.
Request a meeting for career development advice.
Attend networking events or informal gatherings where you may have a chance to introduce yourself.
Suggest collaborating on a project of interest for your sponsor.
Become part of an internal network.
Join a non-profit board or committee that your sponsor is part of.
Once you have the opportunity to connect, show them what makes you worth sponsoring or describe what you can bring to a potential sponsors goals or team. When the opportunity presents itself (or you create it), help them see why you would be a good investment of their time and political capital, what you’re willing to do for them and what help you’d like in return. Spell out the mutual benefits clearly and concisely. If they decline, ask if they can direct you towards a more appropriate leader. This may feel bold, and it is, but by remembering that it is a win-win relationship and that you have value to add and support to provide, it can help infuse you with the courage you need to progress this relationship.
It’s also important to remember that unlike mentors, sponsors don’t need to be leaders you relate to or one’s you aspire to emulate. What’s important in sponsorship is trust and mutual benefit, not affinity to a particular leadership style.
Deliver on your promise
Nothing makes you easier to sponsor than outstanding results. What sponsors are looking for is someone who will deliver standout performance and be loyal and reliable. Help your sponsor understand how you’re contributing towards their goals and the results you’re achieving. Be willing to go the extra mile.
Do you have skills or knowledge your sponsor may lack that can be shared in reverse mentoring? Perhaps you’re a subject matter expert in an area that your sponsor is not that could be highly useful and valuable on a current project. Do you have access to information, formal or informal, that would be valuable or provide capital and currency for them? Learn about what they value and keep your eyes and ears open for ideas, research, and contacts that may assist them. And remember to ask for help when you need it. Ask clearly and have a win-win plan in place.
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