How to Find a Career Sponsor

Whatever your industry, chances are you’ve heard at least once or twice that having a mentor can help you advance your career. While mentors can indeed provide advice or create a roadmap for how to get to the next step, there’s an even more powerful ally you should be seeking: the sponsor. 

Like mentors, sponsors will offer career advice, but they’ll go way beyond the usual battery of career road mapping and will give you feedback about your performance, and perhaps most importantly, will advocate for you even when you’re not around. In essence, a mentor will show you the road to take, while the sponsor will build the road. 

Here’s more you should know about the sponsor relationship. 

It’s a two-way street

The job of a sponsor is a more involved one than that of a mentor, and it can be a much more intimate relationship, because the sponsor will be essentially going to bat for you. With that increased involvement comes an increased responsibility on your part, suggests Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of “Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor.” When someone invests in sponsoring you, they’ll in turn expect your loyalty and your commitment to achieving more than your average employee. Since the relationship often involves you giving something back to the sponsor, it’s natural that the sponsor will be a higher-level person in your own company, unlike mentors who can come from any company related to your industry. 

Sponsors expect results -- and might drop you if you don’t deliver them

While a mentor might stand back and hope the best for you, a sponsor is going to be advocating for you. If you’re not delivering on your end of the two-way street, that sponsor could very well leave you in the dust. Thus, when you start looking for a sponsor, be sure you’re ready for any challenges the sponsor throws at you, and that you can deliver on any promises you’ve made. 

How to start the sponsor-protege relationship 

The sponsorship relationship can originate from either of the two parties. As the junior staff member, look for upper-level managers who have influence, whose values you share, and who have a working style that might be slightly different from your own, but one you can learn from -- and one that you can complement with a style all your own. What’s more, don’t settle for finding one sponsor and then settling in for a lifelong relationship. As you evolve and grow in your business, be constantly on the lookout for new sponsors from whom you can learn new things. When you find a potential candidate, ask directly for sponsorship, and share your career goals so that sponsor knows where you want to go. 

If you’re in the leadership role, look for proteges who are already performing well and who you can trust to keep up that high standard. It’s common to look for proteges who share your values, but also look for someone who can complement your style, or brings something to the table that you don’t have. And of course, look for the people who are constantly striving for bigger and better things and who actually want to be sponsored. 

The sponsor relationship can be a beneficial one for both sides, but as you go along, the junior person in the relationship should be constantly striving for success and earning the sponsor’s allegiance -- even carrying out tasks in and out of the office. In return, the sponsor will be compelled to advocate for that junior member, helping him work up to a level where he’ll be ready to take on his own proteges. 


Image courtesy Chris Potter, Flickr

Harvard Business Review: Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor




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