What a sponsor can do for you: The impact of a professional advocate on your career
by Carol Meerschaert
A large body of research supports what most of us have personally experienced—you don’t get to the top, or reach your maximum career potential, alone. You get there by cultivating and reaping the benefits of a strong personal and professional network.
Your own network likely has family, friends, colleagues, vendors and mentors. But could you be missing a key person—a sponsor?
What is a sponsor?
A sponsor, according to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, in her book Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor, “sees furthering your career as an important investment in his or her own career.” Sponsors’ own careers are bolstered by helping you so don’t think that asking someone to sponsor you is a burden. They benefit from acting on your behalf; a win/win. Think of them as your agent. Just as an artist has an agent who is deeply interested in the career of her client, your sponsor knows that when you succeed, she does too.
The distinction between sponsors and mentors is not always clear because much of the business literature uses the terms interchangeably. But as Diane Gage Lofgren wrote in the 2012 HBAdvantage Mentoring issue, there is a difference: “mentors talk with you, sponsors talk about you.”
Mentors offer career advice and are incredibly valuable assets in career advancement. They are, according to Hewlett, “people who take an interest in counseling you because they like you, or you remind them of themselves. Your mentor will listen to your issue, offer advice and review which problem solving approaches to take.”
Sponsors, on the other hand, will use their own political capital on your behalf, while keeping your need for advocacy and coaching in sharp focus. A sponsor connects you to senior leaders in your company, increases your visibility, opens career opportunities for you and puts your name forward for choice assignments. A sponsor also demonstrates dedication to your career by making sure your gaps in development are filled. Because of this, sponsors can often more directly impact your salary, ambition and long-term success.
Why would someone want to be a sponsor?
This question was a key topic of discussion at the 2012 HBA Building Better Business Connections (3BC) “Creating a Sponsorship Culture” summit, organized to help companies create corporate cultures in which women can obtain and leverage sponsors to help advance their careers.
The answer appears to be that helping to advance others’ careers leads to greater satisfaction in one’s own advancement. Research shows that both male and female leaders who serve as a sponsor are 11 percent more satisfied with their own rate of advancement than leaders who haven’t invested in up-and-comers. Leaders of color who have developed young talent are overall 30 percent more satisfied with their career progress than those who haven’t built that base of support.
Hewlettt adds that sponsors see furthering your career as an important investment in their own career. Sponsors know that backing stellar talent promotes their own legacy, covers their back and brings added perspectives and skills they can use to succeed.
How a sponsor helps your career
Research conducted at the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) shows that sponsors give a person’s career traction by affecting three things: pay raises, high-profile assignments and promotions. When it comes to asking for a pay raise, the majority of men (67 percent) and women (70 percent) resist asking their boss for a raise. Not only will having a sponsor increase the likelihood of you asking for a raise (nearly half of men and 38 percent of women supported by a sponsor will make the request), but also you will be more likely to succeed in getting that raise.
High visibility and stretch assignments further your career by showcasing and developing your skills and talents. Sponsors can lead you to those assignments and give you the confidence to request them. Without a sponsor, only 43 percent of men and 36 percent of women will ask their manager for these assignments. With a sponsor, the numbers rise to 56 percent and 44 percent, respectively.
Finding a sponsor
Most of us know how to get the most of our mentors. We easily ask for and accept advice. But sponsors are less familiar to us and we need to learn how to access and benefit from that relationship.
Be strategic as you search for a sponsor. This is not about affinity—it is about trust and advocacy. You can develop trust with someone who has a leadership style very different from your own. In fact, this difference, according to Hewlett, “imbues sponsorship with power because each party gains from the complementarity from the other. The alliance is then greater than the sum of its individual parts.” Seek a sponsor with clout, high-level contacts, access to stretch assignments and a broad perspective—and who is not afraid to offer critical feedback.
Hewlett suggests that you 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,” she writes in the Harvard Business Review (HBR). “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.”
It’s also important to look beyond the women you admire. "I have benefitted from many sponsors over the last 30 years. All have been men who have believed in me and opened doors for me that would otherwise have stayed closed,” says Annalisa Jenkins, MBBS, MRCP, CEO of Dimension Therapeutics, 2014 HBA WOTY. “At every step of my professional journey I have been aware of great men who were willing to advocate and lend their voice and to push me forwards. I would not have been able to lead Global Medical at BMS, Global R and D at Merck Serono and now Dimension without these sponsors.”
To make the most of a sponsor relationship, you need to embrace the concept of relationship capital. The HBA showed in the E.D.G.E. in Leadership Study that your relationships and interpersonal skills get you promoted. Business relationships earn you what the HBR calls relationship capital, the currency that you need in order to advance beyond what talent and experience can alone secure.
Women, however, tend to view business relationships differently from men. Men tend to view business relationships as transactional. They cultivate relationships that are likely to yield favors or lead to even more business relationships. According to HBR, women’s aversion to quid pro quo leads them to have an account full of supportive peers but a dearth of relationship capital.
And when women do earn relationship capital, we often hesitate to use it. Because we have not been shown that mobilizing relationships on our own behalf is seen as a demonstration of leadership potential, women tend to leave our relationship capital in our savings account instead of leveraging it for career advancement.
Sponsorship is the vehicle to leverage your relationship capital. So go ahead and ask your sponsor to put you forward for a highly visible assignment, connect you to high-ranking decision makers in your company, or advocate on your behalf for a pay raise—and cash in on the opportunities you’ve earned.
Hewlett suggests 10 steps to target and pursue effective sponsors:
- Embrace your dream and do a diagnostic
- Scan the horizon for potential sponsors
- Distribute your risk
- Understand that it’s not all about you
- Come through on two obvious fronts
- Deliver a distinct personal brand
- Exude executive presence
- Make yourself a safe bet
- Lead with a “yes”
- Nail the tactics
Reflections on the impact of a mentor and sponsor
Women executives reflect on how Charlotte Sibley, the HBA’s 2008 Woman of the Year (WOTY), has impacted their careers as both a mentor and sponsor.
“Charlotte has made connections for me through her board work and also advised me on how to build my network in a stronger way and to use it better. She’s helped me to navigate some difficult career decisions and encouraged me to go to the next level when I’m ready and take some risks I normally wouldn’t take. She’s been my advocate, and has given me guidance and courage. I’ve seen the power of a strong sponsor and mentor who can connect me with other HBA women to get where I need to be.”
–Linda Cruz, MBA, principal consultant, Cruz Consulting, and member of the corporate relations committee, HBA
“One example of the impact of Charlotte's sponsorship was creating visibility and advocacy when I was part of her team at Shire. She actively created opportunities that allowed me to demonstrate leadership and a track record of success to position me for promotion. Charlotte always puts her team up front and then ‘gets out of our way’ to let us succeed. During the global launch of a high profile product, Charlotte was confident that I could manage both the US and European market research launch activities. She advocated so that I could build a global team and supported travel across geographies.
Now at a later stage of my career and since we no longer work for the same company, Charlotte's sponsorship extends beyond company walls. She provides key introductions to leaders across the health care industry as I move forward with my career.”
—Bridget Cleff, MBA, director, commercial assessment, Shire Pharmaceuticals