So what is a sponsor? Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founding president of the Center for Talent Innovation and author of Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor, defines a sponsor as “a senior person who has your back”, with the realization that senior leaders in organizations always tend to pass on the power to someone whom they trust. In order to be sponsored, you should show your worth – “you should have some skill or bring some value to the team that the sponsor or no other person on the team has”. The importance of a sponsor in your career development is obvious. According to Hewlett “there is no way up in any career where you don’t need sponsorship, at the end of the day, you need a powerful person to open doors for you.” A sponsor is someone who has the power to “move mountains” and make a difference in your career. Research by the center showed that people with sponsors are 23% more likely to move up in their career than those without sponsors.
The same study showed that 49% of women in the “marzipan layer” – the talent-rich band just under the executive level – search for support from someone “whose leadership style they admire.” What style is that? 42% of women are looking for sponsorship from collaborative, inclusive leaders because that style of leadership is one they embody or hope to emulate.
Let’s be clear that a sponsor is not a mentor. A mentor gives you advice and guidance but takes no risks on your behalf. A sponsor actively champions you forward. A sponsor believes in you and goes out on a limb on your behalf. They actively advocate for your next promotion and provide cover for your professional development. To be your sponsor, they must be able to expand your perception of what you can do, make connections for you to senior leaders, get you noticed, give substantive advice on how you present yourself, make connections to clients and customers for you, and give you candid, transparent, constructive feedback on your skill gaps.
For women especially, it takes more than meeting expectations to get noticed in today’s workplace. “Women who work hard and play by the rules are often overlooked when it comes to major promotions and plum assignments”, according to Catalyst, a global non-profit that works with CEO’s to build open environments for women, they advocate that “effective sponsorship is critical to accelerating a woman’s career for both recognition and promotion.”
What professional women value and seek in a sponsor very often isn’t on offer among those with real power in the organization. This profound mismatch helps explain why so many women — 40% — fail to find the real deal: sponsors who can deliver.
So how do you find a sponsor even if you’re a minority and/or a woman?
In a 2013 study by the Center for Talent Innovation, data revealed that “Men are 46% more likely than women to have a sponsor, and Caucasians are 63% more likely than people of color to have a sponsor.”
Let’s be honest. Sponsorship is earned. There is no single magical formula for attracting a sponsor.
In fact, to attract a sponsor you will need to make your skills, strengths, and achievements, known to your peers and senior management. You need to exhibit that you are flexible, collaborative and committed to your career development. And when a senior manager reaches out to you, it is your responsibility to recognize and acknowledge their interest and be mindful of the politics of the prospective relationship. This is true whether or not your organization embraces sponsorship efforts.
A well-known fact is that organizations perform better if they leverage the talents of high potential individuals without any bias based on race, color or sexual orientation. In reality, and much too often, minority employees find it hard to attract a sponsor, despite their exemplary performance. As a woman of color from India, I am always challenged by any biases (even when they are implicit) of leaders of organizations that employ me.
There are some things you can do to attract your sponsor:
YOU NEED THE RIGHT SKILLS: In this context, it could be a skill which distinguishes you from the rest. A deep knowledge of AI, or perhaps domain expertise in marketing. Sponsors always sponsor selectively and they are looking for stars. Your reputation and performance are the most important attributes. The sponsor-sponsee relationship is a two-way relationship which is also beneficial for the sponsor. When I was interviewed for a job by an executive, I was once asked: “How many people have you sponsored in the past?”. The executive later explained why she posed that question in my interview. She wanted to know how many people on my team had my back because I helped them. For instance, if I was given a difficult task tomorrow that spanned different domain areas, she wanted to ensure I was the type of leader who would have the support of at least two team members, who would go out of their way to make things happen, even in the worst of times. It is highly recommended that everyone should sponsor at least from the time they are managers. This will enable you to plant the seed in at least two rock stars on your team who will at some point go on and do amazing things for you and your team. Someone who doesn’t sponsor will not have this benefit and will not be able to execute difficult projects alone.
LOOK INSIDE YOUR ORGANIZATION: A sponsor need not be a direct manager; look a few rungs up the ladder for someone in a senior position who is willing to open doors for you. Look beyond your immediate circle of mentors and managers. Strategize a way for them to get to know who you are and engage you based on your skills and performance. Often, the most effective way to do this is to be able to demonstrate “impact” to the business. Their sphere of influence includes the high-level contacts they can introduce you to, the stretch assignments that will advance your career, their broad perspective when they give critical feedback — all ready to be deployed on behalf of their proteges.
JOIN NETWORKS FILLED WITH INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE: like “Women in Tech” networks within your organization or professional organizations such as “Girls Who Code”. Take a leadership or a board position with a non-profit where senior leaders of your company, industry, or market are members. For instance, I was the IBM Watson Super Woman’s group organizer and I organized events where I invited influential leaders to speak. This helped me grow my own network in my organization.
DON’T KEEP SHOWING OFF YOUR SKILLS; BUILD TRUST WITH YOUR SPONSOR: once you’ve shown your competence, invest a lot of effort in building rapport with a potential sponsor that makes them confident not just in your abilities but also in your loyalty to them. They already know your skill set so no need to show off. Be humble. Be thoughtful. Be curious. Sponsors are putting their own reputation on the line when they recommend you for a promotion, job, or opportunity. That requires a huge amount of trust that you will honor their belief in you.
TURN MENTORS INTO SPONSORS: You can’t go up to an unknown person in a position of influence and ask them to help you move up professionally. Developing that relationship takes time and a lot of finesse. First, identify someone who could be a great sponsor, and asks that person to mentor you. Then, over time, turn the relationship into a sponsorship. Once you’ve developed a solid rapport and established a proven track record, the relationship can move into a sponsorship dynamic.
SPONSORS ARE NOT NECESSARILY ROLE MODELS OR GUIDANCE COUNSELORS; THEY’RE GATEKEEPERS: a sponsor isn’t someone you have to look up to or want to emulate. It’s a person in a position of influence who can help you advance your career. You are not looking for a best friend or someone to share your personal issues with. Instead, you want to inspire their confidence in you, that you can handle what’s put in front of you. Your targeted sponsor may exercise authority in a way you don’t care to copy but it’s their influence, not their style, that will turbocharge your career. Be professional and look strong: avoid oversharing or exposing your vulnerabilities to someone who is helping you advance your career.
REMEMBER IT’S BENEFICIAL FOR BOTH THE SPONSOR AND THE PERSON BEING SPONSORED: Research has shown that leaders who sponsor do better professionally than those who don’t. Leaders who don’t sponsor very often become isolated. If you become a sponsor, the people whom you have sponsored will go out their way to support your efforts on their behalf. And the time may come when your sponsee can return the favor as their career blossoms. This should be a natural progression of the respect you have earned as a Sponsor. So, more than just offering confidence or potential to a sponsor, try to also bring other tangible value to the table when cultivating a sponsorship. What can you give your sponsor in exchange for their help to you? Look at the sponsor/sponsee dynamic as an exclusive partnership with a joint vision and a goal that both parties march towards. They have each other’s back through it all. That’s the beauty of this unique partnership.
Please keep in mind that you will need more than one sponsor in your career. You will outgrow a sponsor, or a change in employer, industry, or geography, can create new opportunities. So the pursuit of sponsors is a career-long effort, even after you have become a sponsor yourself.