If, however, you’re ready to charge up to the next level in your career, you need someone even more influential than a mentor—you need a sponsor.
The difference between a sponsor and a mentor
A mentor is more of an advisor, while a sponsor is more of an advocate. A sponsor usually serves the role as mentor, but with more intention than a mentor. A sponsor will not only tell you what to do to get to the next level, but will actually help you get there. That’s powerful.
Sponsors are useful in any situation, but especially effective when they are within the organization that you work for and in which you want to move up. They can keep an ear open for opportunities, raise your name in key management meetings, and give you a chance to contribute to key deliverables that will garner high visibility. Simply put, a sponsor can be the extra muscle behind you to make you stand out from other high performing employees.
Why a sponsor is essential
You may be asking why you need a sponsor if you’re a high-performing employee. Shouldn’t your work just speak for itself? In an ideal world, perhaps, but we don’t live in an ideal world. Today’s work environment is faster and more intense than ever before. People don’t have as much time to focus and observe. So while years ago people might have had time to reflect on how amazing your deliverable is, now it is more likely that, if your deliverable is amazing, you will know because they put it to use right away. There isn’t as much time to reflect on and admire the beauty of it.
Additionally, the dynamics of interaction have changed. More people are working remotely, using email as the primary form of communication, and communicating in short bursts (i.e. IM) rather than long discussion meetings.
Add onto this a pool of other high-performing candidates competing for attention, and it can be a real challenge for you to stand out among the crowd.
I’m not alone in this opinion—a very well-known talent management expert, Silvia Ann Hewitt, believes that a sponsor is so important she wrote a book about it: . She gives great insights and tips in this Forbes article as well.
How can you find a sponsor?
Step 1: Know where you want to go
Before you even start to look for a sponsor, you first need to reflect on where you want to go. A sponsor can’t help you if you’re not sure on what help you need. Invest the time (see previous blog post about investing in yourself) to reflect on your career, passions and desired next steps in your career. There are great books to help you do so on our Recommended Reading page.
Step 2: Know your strengths and weaknesses
Not only do you need to be able to tell your sponsor where you want to go in your career, but you need to be able to equip him/her with the information needed to advocate for you. Create a list of your strengths and successes. Know what you need to work on (and consider if there is a project or team that your sponsor can help you connect with so you have a chance to build those skills). If you have examples of deliverables and outcomes that you can share to demonstrate your abilities to your sponsor, have that ready.
Having been a sponsor and mentor, I can tell you that if you invest the time and effort to complete steps 1 and 2, your sponsor can not only advocate better for you, but will be impressed with your approach. S/he will also appreciate the time saved and will be able to jump in and help you much more quickly.
Step 3: Map out your network
This exercise is important to do regardless of whether or not you need a sponsor (more to come in a future blog post on this), but is especially important when you’re trying to find the perfect person to advocate for you. You can use tools such as LinkedIn to map out your network, or you can do it the old-school way with a paper and pen.
In either case, you should think about your network specific to where you want to go. Want to move up or to a different department within your company? Map out whom you know on the teams you want to get involved with—even if they are a connection through a connection. Want to go to another company? Map how whom you know there.
Note that this step may take research if you don’t have immediate connections. Don’t forget to leverage networks to get into networks—networking organizations and your school’s alumni associations are great sources for this.
Step 4: Create your outreach plan
Now that you have a sense of where you want to and potential people to help you get there, you need to determine what you need to do to make the connection. It could be as simple as sending an email, however if you don’t have a personal connection with the potential sponsor already, it may require reaching out to someone to ask for an introduction.
Remember to summarize the specific asks you have for this potential sponsor—people are much more responsive when they know the scope of what’s being asked. If you’re too general, they may be hesitant to get involved if they anticipate it could be more work and they have limited time.
Step 5: Act on your outreach plan
Simple enough. Don’t forget the power of appreciation—thank people for their time and help connecting you. Be patient—you may need to reach out to two to three people before you get someone to commit.
Step 6: Create a strong relationship with your sponsor
Creating a strong relationship with your sponsor is essential—and is done much in the same way you create any strong relationship. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Make sure you’re clear on your ask. Make sure you understand your sponsor’s expectations of you. Make sure the relationship is still working. Did your sponsor help you get to where you wanted to? Determine if the sponsor relationship should continue. And of course, don’t forget the power of a thank you.
Sponsors are an extremely effective way to create career movement. Being a sponsor can also be a very rewarding experience—so once you’ve seen the power of a sponsor, considering becoming one for someone else. After all, as a working parent, you already have the experience of advocating for others through the advocating you’ve done for your kids!