How To Find a Sponsor

You’re aware of mentors guiding and inspiring your career, but how about sponsors? If you really want to get ahead, then you’ll need more than words of wisdom to get there. What you need is someone who has the power to help you get ahead. You need a sponsor.

Mentors and sponsors, while often confused, are far from the same role, says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor. Tons of mentors are out there, but sponsorship is harder to come by—and makes a much more tangible difference in your career. According to research from the Center for Talent Innovation, where Hewlett is founder and CEO, people with sponsors are 23% more likely to move up in their career than those without sponsors.

 

When scanning the horizon for would-be sponsors — and yes, you need more than one — many high-potential women make the mistake of focusing on role models rather than powerfully positioned sponsors. My research shows that they align themselves with people whom they trust and like or who, they believe, trust and like them. According to survey data from the Center for Talent Innovation, 49% of women in the marzipan layer, that talent-rich band just under the executive level, search for support among someone “whose leadership style I admire.” What style is that? Forty-two percent are looking for sponsorship from collaborative, inclusive leaders because that style of leadership is one they embody or hope to emulate.

Before You Approach a Potential Sponsor

Performance counts. Great work is a must, and before anyone can take a chance on you, they must see that you’re loyal, trustworthy, and dependable. These executives are betting their own reputations on your career, says Heather Foust-Cummings, a senior director of research at Catalyst, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding women’s career opportunities. “You don’t take a donkey to the Kentucky Derby,” she says. “No one will take the risk on you.”

Find your star power. Don’t assume that putting your head down and doing your work will get you noticed. You need to become a known entity, says Foust-Cummings. Volunteer for bigger assignments, attend conferences, and become active in your industry.

Don’t force it. Most relationships evolve naturally and won’t happen if you flat out ask someone to be your sponsor. Hedge your bets against your sponsor leaving the company by nurturing relationships with multiple people, says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president of the Center for Talent Innovation.

Be confident. If you’re worried you’re not qualified for that major assignment or concerned about your 2-year-old at home, do not share your honest ambivalence with a sponsor. “Show you’re hungry for an opportunity,” says Hewlett. When you get feedback, handle it with a thick skin and be prepared to act on advice given.

Return the favor. Unlike a mentor, a sponsor will expect your loyal support in return. A sponsor benefits, too, from the “power of the posse” to build his or her own career. After all, no one gets to the top alone.

Determining Who Would Be a Good Potential Sponsor

  • To avoid that mistake, be strategic as you search your galaxy of supporters for would-be sponsors. Efficacy trumps affinity; you’re looking not for a friend but an ally. Your targeted sponsor may exercise authority in a way you don’t care to copy but it’s their clout, not their style, that will turbocharge your career. Their powerful arsenal 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 protégés.
  • Look beyond your immediate circle of mentors and managers. While you should, of course, impress your boss — who can be a valuable connection to potential sponsors — seek out someone with real power to change your career. Would-be sponsors in large organizations are ideally two levels above you with line of sight to your role; in smaller firms, they’re either the founder or president or are part of his or her inner circle.

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