A mentor is great, but what your career really needs is a sponsor
How to find one and be a good one too
We don’t need to go through a pile of research papers to conclude that in today’s work environment, simply putting your head down and doing the work isn’t going to get you ahead. Sometimes climbing the corporate ladder can feel like you’re stuck in MC Escher’s labyrinth of crisscrossing staircases.
So how do people do it, then? Forget the top; how do you get in the door when others with similar qualifications, strong work experience and proven performance are standing in the queue beside you? If you ask successful CEOs, board members of Fortune 500 companies and high-flying entrepreneurs, they’re likely to talk about passion, time management, creativity, and constantly learning from those around them. Some share wisdom passed down by their mentors, which we too can learn from (like Dr Maya Angelou and Oprah’s mentor-mentee relationship). But few will openly tell you what differentiated them from others at their professional level who didn’t progress the way they did – a career sponsor.
In all fairness, they may talk about the people who helped them climb the ranks without explicitly calling them a career sponsor. That’s probably because, despite its importance, the term isn’t as popular.
The Harvard Business Review (HBR) took up an investigation. Even with training and mentorship programs, why do high-potential female candidates – employees with the abilities, engagement and ambition to succeed in senior management – get fewer promotions, lower pay grades and score low on career satisfaction?
HBR looked through surveys and studies, and conducted in-depth interviews with participants in mentoring programs at a large multinational. They found that mentorship is just the beginning of what working women need to thrive. HBR concludes that “the interviews and survey indicate that, compared with their male peers, high-potential women are overmentored, undersponsored, and not advancing in their organisations. Without sponsorship, women not only are less likely than men to be appointed to top roles, but may also be more reluctant to go for them.”
Who is a career sponsor?
There are two critical points in every year as a working professional. The one we look forward to the most, perhaps, is the Diwali bonus, but the one we get equally excited and nervous about is evaluation time. It’s the time of the year when higher-ups sit down to review employees’ job performances, decide increments, promotions, and who will lead what big project next. The closed-door meetings of the company’s big guns is where Carla Harris, Wall Street veteran and vice-chairman and managing director at Morgan Stanley, had an “aha moment” in 1998. In a Ted talk, she describes watching how various people batted for their colleagues and juniors, and she realised that workplace meritocracy is a myth – you need a sponsor to talk on your behalf.
When you hear the word sponsorship, you may think about haircare product promotions by influencers or the brand logos on the jerseys of your favourite football players. But, speaking at the Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai Litfest, Arundhati Bhattacharya, the first woman chairperson of the State Bank of India, described a career sponsor as someone who is one or two positions above you at work who pushes you towards your goals.
In her book Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor, economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett says a sponsor is someone who “sees furthering your career as an important investment in his or her own career.” Carol Meerschaert, Executive Director at AXYS Genetic, asks you to think of having a career sponsor like an artist would have an agent. Someone in a senior position who will put forth your name for projects and promotions, who will talk you up and vouch for you.
Do you need a sponsor or a mentor?
It can sometimes be challenging to distinguish between a mentor and a career sponsor. A mentor offers guidance and advice, often based on personal experience. It’s not necessarily someone who has more professional experience than you. It could be someone in a completely different field too. They can help clear your mental clutter and, help you find direction, support you regardless of your decisions, whether in your personal or professional life. Unlike a mentor who would suggest the correct route, Bhattacharya said that a sponsor would actively carve out a path for you.
“A mentor gives you friendly advice,” says Hewlett. “A sponsor is a senior in your organisation or world and has the power to get you that next job.”
“A mentor, frankly, is nice to have, but you can survive a long time in your career without a mentor. You are not going to ascend in any organisation without a sponsor. It is so critical that you should ask yourself regularly, ‘Who’s carrying my paper into the room?'” says Harris. If you’re starting your professional career, switching your field and starting something completely new or find yourself at a crossroads, then seeking the counsel of a mentor can be beneficial. But, on the other hand, if it’s time to take the next big step ahead in your career, then as Harris says, “divert some of your hardworking energies into investing in a sponsor relationship because it will be critical to your success.”
What makes a good sponsor?
Wouldn’t it be great if someone super successful spotted you and said, yes, you will now be my protégé? If only a career sponsor saved you the trouble and found you. It’s more likely that you will have to hunt for one yourself.
Hewlett and Harris have very similar suggestions on what characteristics make an ideal candidate to be your sponsor. The most important is that they are someone who has a seat at the decision-making table. Not just that, but as Harris says, “they’d better have some power.”
This person needs to be familiar with your work and achievements so that when they talk about you to others, they can be specific about what you offer rather than make prosaic statements.
Hewlett suggests finding someone who also believes in your potential and is willing to bet on you so that they can provide you with the safety net you need to take more significant risks.
How to find a career sponsor
Increase your currency
At work, Harris says there are two types of currency that need to be cultivated. The first is performance currency which is generated when you deliver what is asked of you and “a little bit extra…Performance currency is valuable for three reasons. Number one, it will get you noticed. It will create a reputation for you. Number two, it will also get you paid and promoted very early on in your career and very early on in any environment. And number three, it may attract a sponsor. Why? Because strong performance currency raises your level of visibility in the environment.”
Relationship currency is what you generate by spending the time to get to know and develop authentic connections with the people around you. “It is important that you invest the time to connect, to engage and to get to know the people who are in your environment, and more importantly, to give them the opportunity to know you. Because once they know you, there’s a higher probability that when you approach them to ask them to be your sponsor, they will, in fact, answer in the affirmative.”
It’s the relationship currency you engage when seeing whom to approach to be a career sponsor, and it’s your performance currency that you can bank on when speaking to them. They, in turn, can reference these when championing you.
Become a master of the field within the organisation
Make yourself the expert in the room. It can be a space of interest or a particular skill that comes easy to you – master it. It can be making the most efficient excel sheets, being a negotiator, a creative video editor or marketing catchphrases – you’re more likely to be picked up for something or noticed by people if it’s known that you are the best in this field within the organisation.
Her politics aside, former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s expertise in Soviet affairs caught the attention of former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft who brought her into the White House, where she became a valuable asset.
Make yourself indispensable to your supervisor
You’re more likely to get sponsorships by making yourself valuable to your supervisor, either by making their professional life easier by filling in where they lack or going one step further on your assignment to show extra engagement in the task. For example, you’re not only completing a writing project but sharing ways in which the article could be translated into a video format too.
You can expand your job role by picking up tasks in a different department than the one you’re working in. But there’s a fine line between multi-tasking in a manageable way and stretching yourself too thin. Only you can judge what you can handle sustainably because you don’t want to be a jack of all trades and a master of none.
The more reliable you are for your supervisor, the more likely they will take you along with them as they move up their professional ladder.
Give as much as you receive
A sponsor doesn’t have to be limited to your company. It can be someone at a different organisation, as long as they are further down their professional journey. If a great opportunity is discussed elsewhere, they can still refer you for it. But as much as you ask them, a coworker or peer, about enabling your professional growth, you should also have tips to offer.
Share information about new companies, what’s in the news (or would make great news), connect people, and share job opportunities that may not work for you but would be appropriate for someone else; being a giver as much as a receiver will hold you in a favourable position in your professional network.
Join the club and make your presence known
Professional clubs and guilds are a great place to make your presence felt and to find a career sponsor. In addition, most clubs host member gatherings and networking events where you can meet seniors in your field you otherwise wouldn’t have access to.
Club events are usually more casual. While everyone is constantly networking, it’s also essential to know how slow or fast you should make your approach. Most people, mainly those higher up, are used to people trying to butter them up daily. You can use the initial few meetings to introduce yourself to them, toot your own horn (because no one else is going to do it), and talk more about the impact of what you do for your company and your plans. Make your intentions known without outright asking for sponsorship from the get-go.
Strategise your social media page
Other than Linkedin, Instagram is perhaps the second biggest platform to showcase your personal and professional talent, skills and experience. Navneet Singh, founder and CEO of an HR consultancy, says that we can harness the power of social media to advocate for ourselves.
He advises strategising in a way that builds your brand without it seeming obnoxious. “Follow the ‘5-3-2’ rule for social media sharing. Pick 9 pieces of content: 5 should be from others, 3 from you and 2 should be personal updates,” says Singh in an interview with Times of India.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to other people in your field and talk to them about their work. According to Raj Dua, former HR head at a leading advertising agency, social media can be a great professional networking tool, and you never know where a conversation may lead. Talk to people one or two designations above you in the field. Talk to them about their professional journeys. Ask them questions related to things that they have posted themselves. Creating such professional friendships may sound self-serving (they are, in a way), but it increases that relationship currency when seeking sponsorship.
How to be a good sponsor for others
Stay current with the cultural conversations
Being a good sponsor requires skills and perceptiveness that don’t always come naturally to everyone. In addition, sponsor-sponsee relationships can be complex, given age differences and gender, but that doesn’t mean that people with significant age gaps or of different genders shouldn’t be considered for sponsorship.
Being a good career sponsor needs you to be tuned into changing cultural conversations that include the overlap of gender, leadership styles, personalities and backgrounds. It’s essential to be aware that what would be acceptable for a male trying to move up the ladder may be considered the complete opposite for a woman. We all grow up with unconscious biases that influence our everyday activity, and when we’re cognisant of them, we can accommodate a differing opinion or change our own. Your strategy for promoting one person may need to be different for another.
If you’re in a corporate set-up with hundreds, maybe even thousands of employees across all levels, how likely is it that someone at an entry-level position would get face time with upper management?
Many people would groan at having to attend an office-mandated event or party; you can use these as opportunities for juniors and seniors to meet and get to know one another. A casual setting is more likely to facilitate connections between coworkers within and across departments than a formal meeting in a boardroom. See it as a team-building exercise every quarter rather than an office party that can boost morale and maybe even spark new ideas for the company.
Look over the company policies and enact them.
As a sponsor, if your goal is to create opportunities for people from marginalised communities, an excellent place to start would be to look through the company policies with the HR department. Make sure it’s put down on paper, and use your authority to ensure that diversity and equal representation are also being put into action.
It is also essential to make it known that your department or organisation has these policies and programs. For example, it could be something as simple as a policy that ensures equal access and opportunity for promotions, training or upskilling programs.
Invest in the workshops/training
It may be easier to leave upskilling and re-skilling to the employees to figure out on their own time.
But facilitating training programs, talks and workshops with leaders that you may have access to as a senior will not just improve your company culture and ensure you have more capable employees but give those in management a chance to spot high-potential candidates in action.
Nurturing high-potential candidates is better for your bottom line too.
Be the person you wish you had
“It wasn’t until I was further in my career at a permanent science position that I understood the value of sponsors. I had kind of muddled my way through with some luck. Then someone called me and said, “Hey, do you want to work at NASA?” That person was really a sponsor for me,” Dr Jessie Christiansen, an astrophysicist and planet hunter for NASA, told Tweak India. “Now, in my life, I find opportunities to do that for students that I’ve worked with and that, honestly, is one of my greatest joys as a scientist. Getting to reach back down and pull people up to be the next generation of scientists.”
Don’t get us wrong, being a sponsor isn’t all about the kindness of your heart and charity either. It’s through the people you help that your legacy lives on. Your career is attached to that investment; the better they do, the more your name and reputation grow.