Who’s Your Leadership Sponsor?

A Practical Guide to Finding the Right Sponsor.

Rock Climbing, Mountain Climbing, Hiking.There has been a lot of recent attention surrounding the importance of having a sponsor in order to advance your career. According to research by the Center for Talent Innovation, people with sponsors are 23% more likely to advance their careers than those without sponsors.[1] This is especially true for women, who, as a recent McKinsey article suggests, tend to be chronically over-mentored but under-sponsored.[2] “I understand having a sponsor is crucial to my career advancement, but how do I get one?” is a question we often hear from leaders we coach.

A sponsor is not the same thing as a mentor. A good mentor will talk with you and help you learn and grow from their experience. A sponsor is someone who also talks about you as your active advocate. A mentor is someone who contributes to your development. A sponsor is a leader who is committed to your advancement. I describe the difference between a sponsor and a mentor by using the metaphor of walking through a door. A mentor might show you where the door is, describe it to you, and support you with advice as you attempt to go through it. In contrast, a sponsor will take you by the hand and walk you through the door. In some cases, the sponsor will even bust down the door for you. A sponsor will fight for you in internal promotion discussions and usher you into assignments that position you to prove yourself. Sponsors not only believe in your potential; they are willing to take a risk based on that belief.

So, how does one get a sponsor? Sponsorship is difficult to formalize into organizational systems because of its nature. The good news is, many leaders want to be sponsors. Most veteran leaders understand the need for succession plans and grooming future talent. Many of those leaders get great fulfillment from building future leaders. This is an important message to keep in mind as you consider a sponsor. This is not someone doing you a favor; most of the time, sponsorship is a two-way street. Sponsors take a risk for you and you repay them by proving they were right about you. Identifying, sponsoring and nurturing the next generation of leaders is a way to build their legacy and it often raises their stock value internally, too.

While there is no surefire “recipe” for finding a sponsor, here are some steps to consider:

1. Develop a relationship with a person you would like to have as a champion. Usually these are senior leaders in the organization who are well-regarded, credible, and influential. Also look for a leader where you have some sort of a “match” between you and the potential sponsor. You may remind them of themselves when they were younger, or they may be drawn to you because you are bringing something different to the organization and fill a critical talent gap. It may also be that you share the same vision for the organization. Whatever the selection qualities may be, it only becomes apparent through conversations with the other person, which is why those early interactions are so important. They are the opportunity for you to get to know them while they get to know you. Sponsorship is based on trust and confidence in each other.

In practical terms, just scheduling coffee with a potential sponsor is a good first step. If you feel you have a potential match and this person would make a good sponsor, build the relationship with follow-up conversations.

2. Make sure they have an opportunity to see your best work. This second component marks the fundamental distinction between a sponsor and a mentor. A mentor can offer support and guidance regardless of whether they have faith in your ability to deliver. Conversely, a sponsor will need to see your work product if they are going to “stick their neck out” for you. Remember, sponsorship is a two-way street.

How can the person you want as your champion see you in action at your best? Is there an opportunity to work directly with them on a project or present in front of them? If the person works in a different department, is there a cross-departmental initiative which will give them exposure to you?

3. Ask for it. The first two items mentioned may be enough to land you a sponsor, but if that’s not the case, you may need to take the extra step and ask them directly. Ask, “Would you be willing to serve as my sponsor (i.e. open doors for me that would allow me to prove myself and advocate for me if there are opportunities for advancement)?” Many women, in particular, do not feel comfortable about taking this extra (and sometimes essential) step, but it could be the sponsor just needs a gentle nudge to understand the impact they could have on your career and the organization. After all, what’s the worst that could happen if you do build up the courage to ask?

As you move forward in your sponsorship search, remember to also look back. Who is someone you could be sponsoring now? This is the perfect time to strengthen your commitment to sponsoring others and doing so will further demonstrate you are someone who deserves a strong sponsor.

1 Hewlett, S. A. Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor. Center for Talent Innovation.

2 Barton, D., Devillard, S., and Hazlewood, J. Gender Equality: Taking Stock of Where We Are. McKinsey Quarterly, Sept. 2015

Contributed by Raluca Graebner, Ph.D.

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