When leaders reflect on their careers, most credit their success (in part) to the mentors who’ve helped them along the way. I do. I’ve had numerous mentors guide me toward the leader, and person, I am today. Some took a chance on me and gave me the promotion or a foot in the door; others told me I was ready to do something on my own; most gave advice. But this was 25 years ago. Times have changed.
At its core, mentorship still centers on offering advice, to talk through ideas and level set on issues. How do I tell my story better? When is the right time to speak up? How do I demonstrate strategic thinking? Executive presence? What’s changed is that today, in most cases, we don’t really need a person to help us answer those questions; we can attend a webinar or take a class. We can search Google and have Amazon deliver leadership books to our door. Those are things that couldn’t be done two decades ago.
The questions I’m asked of mentees today aren’t as simple as “how do I strengthen my resume?” Rather, they want to know very specific things: How do I position myself for the next big role? Get the right exposure? Navigate a system? These are answers that aren’t found in a book. And while any leader can give guidance on all the above, most folks will find it challenging to make headway until someone chooses to invest in them and their future by helping remove obstacles and open doors.
This is sponsorship – and it’s never been more pivotal to career advancement than it is today.
A Better Way to Develop Leadership
This isn’t to say mentorship isn’t worthwhile or helpful. It is, but for different reasons. The mentor/mentee relationship is important for networking. Most of us, though, need more than a network to get where we want to go. As Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, explains it, “Mentors can build self-esteem and provide a sounding board – but they’re not [a] ticket to the top.” Sponsors, on the other hand, can be.
Simply put: mentors cheer for their mentees; sponsors go to bat for their protégés. They put themselves out there, making real, tangible connections to key people, assignments and jobs. There are numerous articles that offer tips for “finding your sponsor” but there’s little written about what it takes to be a sponsor. Of course, it’s different for everyone. We all have a distinct blend of company culture, career goals, industry, people and personalities that informs a unique roadmap to progress. But there are shared traits. In my experience, I’ve found the best sponsors do three crucial things for their protégés:
- Invest in their upward movement. As a sponsor, you’ve chosen to have a direct and personal stake in someone’s success. When you believe in someone’s talent and skills, you’re willing to stick out your neck to help them advance. Let’s say there’s a coveted job opening. As a mentor, you’d talk your protégé through things he could do to get the interview or promotion; as a sponsor, you connect him with an influential executive in the department, endorse his potential and the value he’d bring to the position. You leverage your reputation to strengthen his.
- Champion their visibility. As a sponsor, you know what your protégé is capable of – and you make those capabilities known in circles she can’t yet access. By vouching for her when the doors are closed, you give her visibility to influential people within the organization, which helps remove barriers to new and often unseen opportunities. Sponsors not only open doors but also the eyes and ears of decision makers, which is often instrumental in someone’s ability to grow and climb, faster and further.
- Create/involve them in experiences that stretch their potential. Perhaps the most important part of sponsorship is knowing what someone needs before they do – and pushing them toward that goal. The same goes for leadership. After all, you didn’t get here without taking risks, even when you weren’t sure you’d succeed. Learning is constant and it’s not always comfortable. But it’s always valuable.
Sponsorship: A Mutually Beneficial Relationship
Just like mentorship, sponsorship isn’t a new concept, but it is increasingly necessary for professional growth in almost any field. There is power not only in who you know but in who believes in you – and is willing to invest in your future self.
Hewlett, who also wrote the book on sponsorship (Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor), believes many of us make the mistake of assuming mentors and sponsors are interchangeable. For example, “Women on average have three times as many mentors as men, but men have twice as many sponsors,” she says. And according to research from the Center for Talent Innovation, the majority of women (85%) and multicultural professionals (81%) need support to advance their careers but receive it less than white men.
As senior leaders, we need to step up as sponsors, especially for women and minorities. But rising leaders – male and female – need to do their part in attracting our attention. Specifically, they must follow the “4 Cs” of credibility, confidence, consistency and connection.
Credibility: Do your job well. Go above and beyond in your current role, and always ask for feedback – and take it. Prove your credentials are worthy of investment.
Confidence: Confidence manifests differently in everyone, especially in men vs. women. But for everyone, it’s built through opportunities that prove yourself and stretch your capabilities. Do both, but with authenticity and humility. Know your strengths – and your weaknesses.
Consistency: Do you deliver with the highest results every time? Remember: flashes of greatness are best left to superheroes. A leader sponsors someone who is steady and stable in their performance and behavior.
Connection: Build your personal brand and put yourself out there. Create opportunities to be noticed by those who will see your potential – and act on it.
Leaders, it’s part of our job to nurture the next generation. Be a mentor – and a sponsor. Not only is this our way to pay it forward for all those who deserve a chance, but it’s the only way we can help ensure the future of business is in good hands.