A career sponsor (or workplace sponsor) is someone who is both influential and willing to go to bat for you.
People in the early stages of their careers face a lot of pressure to find a mentor who can provide advice and guidance in a professional setting. Mentorship programs are common in the corporate landscape, and yet mentorship doesn’t always result in career advancement.
A mentor is someone, possibly from a different organisation or industry, who shares their experience and acts as a sounding board without necessarily investing any energy into advancing their mentee’s career. As Harris says in her talk, “a mentor, frankly, is nice to have, but you can survive a long time in your career without a mentor”.
Sponsorship is a much more targeted relationship that sees an influential person in a senior position direct opportunities to a junior employee they believe shows strong potential. It’s a transactional arrangement that requires a significant commitment: your sponsor must be willing to take risks and expend their social and political capital on your behalf.
It is a critical relationship in your career.
“You are not going to ascend in any organisation without a sponsor,” says Carla Harris, vice chairman, managing director and senior client adviser at Morgan Stanley, in a 2018 TED Talk.
Mentorship comes with less accountability, says leadership specialist Michelle Sales, author of The Power of Real Confidence. “I can mentor people and help develop and stretch them, but I’m not putting my name on the line by recommending them for a role.”
A sponsor must have a strong grasp of your strengths. “They need to have a good sense of what you’re able to achieve,” she says. “When you’re sponsoring someone, you’re putting your name on the line and saying, ‘I think this person should be considered for this role’.”
It’s sponsorship, not mentorship, that can have the most significant impact on your career. Without a sponsor – someone who advocates for you – it is very difficult to advance your career purely on merit, particularly at senior levels when roles are rarely advertised, and connections count.
How to find a sponsor
To attract a sponsor, you need to first consistently deliver on performance, demonstrating that you can exceed targets and meet deadlines.
You also need to cultivate strong connections with potential sponsors and make sure they are across your successes.
“You cannot ask someone to use their hard-earned personal influential currency on your behalf if you’ve never had any interaction with them,” Harris says.
Be strategic in your search for sponsorship. Sales advises sitting down every 12 months to map out where you want to take your career over the next one to two years. Once you’ve identified your goals, think about what support you need to achieve them.
“If you want to move to a different part of the organisation, then ask who … would be appropriate to sponsor you?” advises Sales. “Be specific about the sponsorship you need.”
It pays to be clear about the type of person who makes a good sponsor. You’re not looking for a role model whom you respect or admire, but for someone well-placed to open the right doors.
“When you’re sponsoring someone, you’re putting your name on the line and saying, ‘I think this person should be considered for this role’.” Michelle Sales
A sponsor offers a “powerful arsenal [that] 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,” writes Sylvia Ann Hewlett, economist and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation in the Harvard Business Review.
It also helps to consider what value you represent to your sponsor. This might be technical skills, social media savvy or another form of expertise, Hewlett says. “Consider acquiring skills that your job doesn’t require but that set you apart – and make you a stronger contributor to a team.”
Sales says she often hears leaders described as a sponsor, mentor and manager rolled into one. While a leader can serve as a sponsor, it’s prudent to look further afield for influential advocates.
“What happens when that leader leaves?” asks Sales. “You are left exposed. If you have a great leader, that’s fantastic, but also have a mentor and sponsor as well.”
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Should you make it official?
Be upfront with your sponsor from the beginning about what you want to achieve and the support you need to get there, advises Sales. “A lot of people assume they have a sponsor, but they haven’t had that conversation,” she says.
A sponsor might be willing to put you forward for one opportunity but not another, she warns. “They might not think you have the potential to move across an organisation, but they might sponsor you to be in a more senior role in your current speciality.”
Directly addressing the sponsorship relationship will put you on the same page.
“It’s important to have a conversation with a sponsor and … say, ‘this is what I’m looking to do in my career, would you support me in that?’”