How Sponsorship Works
A sponsor is a senior leader who, at a minimum: And comes through on at least two of the following fronts:
- Believes in me and goes out on a limb on my behalf
- Advocates for my next promotion
- Provides “air cover” so I can take risks
- Expands my perception of what I can do
- Makes connections to senior leaders
- Promotes my visibility
- Provides stretch opportunities
- Gives advice on “presentation of self”
- Makes connections to clients/customers
- Gives honest/critical feedback on skill gaps
If you’re not in a corporate setting, it may help to think of a sponsor as a talent scout. He’ll get you in front of directors to audition for a key role. He’ll also nudge the director to choose you. But his investment in you doesn’t stop there. He’ll coach you on your performance so that you prove to others what an excellent choice he made. He’ll focus a spotlight on you so that other directors take note of your abilities, and he’ll make introductions afterward so that you can follow up with them to bring your talent to a wider audience. Should you stumble, or should any of those other directors turn hostile, your sponsor will come to your aid, because now that your brands are linked, it’s in his best interests to ensure you succeed.
Embrace Your Dream and Do a Diagnostic
Look for role models. Read about people whose achievements inspire you. Keep refreshing your pool. It’s important you have a robust sampling, lest the daily cavalcade of stories about unrewarded struggle or unwarranted sacrifice succeed in dampening your drive. Amazing people triumph, often overcoming hurdles far greater than your own. Put them in your sights.
Envisage yourself at age fifty, with twenty-five productive years ahead of you. It’s never too late to focus on a goal and go after it.
Consult with a mentor, role model, or personal development coach who can help you see the big picture. Brainstorm a professional target list. Write down your aspirations, however modest or fabulous, and figure out how to hold yourself accountable.
If you’ve had your performance assessed using an industry diagnostic (a Hogan Personality Inventory or 360-degree review, for example), ask for the results and review them with your manager and/or mentor to zero in on your strengths. If you haven’t had a performance review, informal or formal, ask for one. No matter what size company you work for, somebody’s taking your measure. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to benefit from their perspective.
Scan the Horizon for Potential Sponsors
Choose your targets carefully.
– Put efficacy over affinity. Role models are great to have, but they may not make effective sponsors.
– Don’t be put off by leadership style. You need to respect your sponsor, not vow to become him or her. Your target may exercise authority in a way you don’t care to copy, but it’s his clout, not his style, that will turbocharge your career.
– Friends don’t make the best sponsors. Doubtless you have friends; what you need in a sponsor is a strategic ally. Friendship can actually hinder a relationship that’s instrumental in nature.
– By all means impress your boss, but seek as your sponsor someone with the power to change your career. Would-be sponsors in large organizations are ideally two levels above you, with line of sight into your performance and your career. In smaller firms, either they’re the founder or president, or they have the ear of that person.
Get in front of would-be sponsors.
– Ask a supportive manager for stretch assignments in your target sponsor’s line of sight.
– Request a meeting with your target sponsor for career development advice.
– Attend networking events, conferences, and extracurricular or informal gatherings where you might have occasion to approach your target and introduce yourself. Be able to articulate not just who you are and what you do but your distinct value added—the hook that will spark interest and ensure you’re remembered as someone who has something to offer, rather than as someone who’s making a demand.
– Propose a quid pro quo. Identify ways you might help your sponsor solve a looming business challenge. Offer to contribute in a concrete way. At the same time, explain what you are looking for in the way of advocacy: introductions to other department heads, stretch opportunities within your own division, lateral moves to gain experience or promotions. Suggest that an alliance can work to your mutual benefit.
– If your target sponsor demurs, ask if he or she can direct you to a more appropriate leader. Ask if he or she will introduce you.
Distribute Your Risk
Increase your internal visibility.
– Lead a network (e.g., a women’s leadership group, an African American forum) or an employee resource or affinity group.
– Spearhead a philanthropic project, cultural event, or company sports team.
– Ask for mentorship. Create a circle of mentors from different divisions or departments with whom you might consult on strategic shifts in your industry or career.
– Ask your boss to introduce you to his or her boss.
– Ask for personal development, leadership development, or formalized mentorship, as executives are often tapped to lead these internal programs.
Increase your external visibility.
– Join a nonprofit board relevant to your industry or sector.
– Run for office in your professional association, community, school district, or church or synagogue.
– Attend conferences and figure out how to be a speaker, panelist, or facilitator.
– Create a personal board of directors or circle of mentors external to your company to get big-picture insights and advice on an optimal career path.
Figure out the levers of power and work them.
– Timing is everything when you think your job is under siege. Be proactive: as soon as you see the handwriting on the wall, mobilize your external as well as internal champions.
Understand That It’s Not All About You
– Recognize when you need help and ask for it before you get in trouble.
– Keep your sponsor in the loop, fully apprised of what’s happening in your career (your wins and losses, triumphs, and struggles) so that he or she can offer guidance or even intervention. You are, after all, walking around with his or her brand on your forehead.
Signal that you’ll be a contributor.
– Deliver outside your job description. Bring in some new business or win back a former client.
Give what’s needed without being asked. What is your sponsor working on? What’s near and dear to her heart that you can help make happen? What can you take off her plate? What information do you have that she needs or that would help her do her job better? Where can you pitch in and make a difference? “If you proactively give information or do something you know will help your sponsor be successful when she doesn’t ask for it,” one talent professional counsels, “she’ll know you have her back and are not just standing in front of her with a hand out.”
– Make the small gesture. Commit random acts of everyday thoughtfulness. This could be as simple as buying an extra cappuccino at Starbucks on your way into a meeting with your sponsor. You won’t appear to be a suck-up if you’re someone who shows equal thoughtfulness toward your colleagues on a random, regular basis.
Come Through on Two Obvious Fronts
Hit the numbers. Meet all deadlines. Exceed expectations. Nothing makes you easier to sponsor than outstanding results, according to 62 percent of our survey respondents.
Be able to recite—and make sure your boss can cite—your accomplishments in terms of what your firm values. It may be the scale of projects you’re overseeing. It could be the number of clients you’ve won or retained. But know how you stack up against your peers and your competitors.
Get the word out on your successes. Since it can be difficult to brag about yourself, work with peers to sing each other’s praises. A vice president at Merrill Lynch describes how she and three other women, all up-and-coming leaders but in different divisions of the firm, met monthly for lunch to update each other on their projects and accomplishments. The idea was to be ready to talk positively about each other, should an occasion arise. As this vice president explained it, “If my boss were to complain about some problem or challenge he’s struggling to solve, I would say, ‘You should talk to Lisa in global equities, because she’s had a lot of experience with that.’ It turned out to be a really effective tactic, because we could be quite compelling about each other’s accomplishments.” In short order, all four women won promotions.
Develop and Deploy Your Currency
Identify the currency you already have and lift it up. If you’re fluent in Spanish and your firm is expanding in Florida or Mexico, make sure your boss knows—and volunteer to help out on a project that needs your language ability. If you have great quant skills and your team is technically challenged, bring your expertise to the fore and make it useful.
Acquire skills (currency) that your current job doesn’t actually require, but that set you apart from your colleagues. An executive at Freddie Mac describes how, as a thirty-year-old working for a state housing authority, he spent hours of his own time learning how to underwrite mortgages. “It wasn’t my job, but I wanted to know how it worked, the nuts and bolts. I spent hours going through this material with a yellow pad and a calculator until it became second nature to me. And now? I can be in any conversation about the financing of houses and be one of the strongest contributors.”
Reverse-mentor. Bring to your sponsor the skill sets or know-how she lacks. This might be technical or social-media savvy. One twenty-four-year-old sales rep, noting that her sponsor “wasn’t exactly current in terms of the Internet,” briefed her on job candidates whose résumés bristled with technical jargon and references to social media innovation that she simply couldn’t comprehend, let alone assess for relevance. “I just helped educate her so she didn’t come off as some kind of dinosaur,” says the rep.
Innovate. Access an underleveraged market, cultivate a new customer base, improve a process, or, in some other way create value. Rajashree Nambiar, head of branch banking for Standard Chartered Bank in India, saw a way to flex her cultural and gender smarts with the redesign of two bank branches in Kolkota and New Delhi. As a professional Indian woman Nambiar had experienced more than her fair share of traditional male bankers, and had a hunch that women (who accounted for more than 50 percent of the clientele at these locations) would respond to a female-friendly environment. So when a market research firm confirmed her hunch, she pitched her novel idea to the executive committee: making over the two bank branches to be branches staffed exclusively by women, from the top financial advisers to the security guards. She got the go-ahead and proceeded to transform not just the “look” of the branches but the nature of the products and services provided. These all-women branches proved to be immensely successful, indeed one of them went on to become one of Standard Chartered’s most profitable in the country, burnishing Nambiar’s brand as well as that of her employer.
Lean In and Lead with a Yes
Save “yes” for your sponsor. One biotech recruiter observed, “Be selective about whom you say yes to: you can’t say yes to everybody or you’ll be spread too thin to ace any one assignment.” Consider, too, how this particular yes, said to this particular person, will advance your career. It really comes down to being strategic about who you’re cultivating as a sponsor.
Propose solutions rather than present problems. You’re perfectly entitled to accept a mission with caveats. But show enormous enthusiasm and gratitude, and don’t throw your conditions back at your sponsor as issues you expect him or her to solve. Think through how you can make the opportunity work best for you. You owe it to yourself and your sponsor to give yourself the latitude you’ll need to succeed. Lead with this solution when negotiating next steps.