How Sponsors Are Different
Professional guidance comes in a variety of forms. It is important for leaders to recognize the different roles they may play in others’ professional development, and equally important to recognize the type of guidance leaders themselves need to grow. One such distinction is the difference between the role of coach, mentor, and sponsor.
What makes a sponsor different from a coach or mentor?
In sponsoring, an action component emerges to set it apart from both coaching and mentoring. Sponsors are your advocates. Sponsors are actively invested in your future by specifically and publically naming you for advancement opportunities. Sponsors not only help you see what possibilities might be available, they also throw your name in the ring of potential candidates. They are betting on you with their professional reputation by sharing their network and connecting you to your next development opportunity or career move. Yet, just as with a mentor or a coach, to have or be a sponsor requires a reciprocal relationship—one that is built over time, through many interactions developing trust and respect.
Why seek a sponsor, or be one?
The action-oriented professional advocacy of a sponsor is tough to beat. And while some of us may like to think we get ahead through our individual hard work alone, we often need a champion to help that hard work get noticed by the right people, at the right time. Many professionals, especially women, are over-mentored and under-sponsored, while not advancing as they’d hoped.
Being a sponsor can provide a rewarding relationship where you not only support the advancement of another, you also build relationships with high achievers who will likely be loyal contributors to your vision or mission. By encouraging others in your networks to become sponsors, you build a cadre of support and surround yourself with a strong pool of talented resources to call upon.
This also helps bust the pervasive myth that sponsors can’t be peers. While it might be more likely that earlier in your career a sponsor will be several levels above you, the more you progress, the more likely it is that someone closer to your peer group will simply be in a different position of influence to help you move forward.
Finally, it can be good business to help people develop, move up, and yes, move out. The time can come in everyone’s career when the next right move is not within the same organization. As a leader, one responsibility is to simultaneously advocate both what is good for the organization as well as good for the people. Someone who has felt supported to grow even when that means they go outside of your organization may be more inclined to return, even several years later, with more experience and skills to contribute to the organization in a new and valuable way.
Whether you’re looking for a sponsor, or looking to be one, here are a few more considerations.
- As the sponsor: Consider that you are likely in a mentor or mentor-like role now. What would it take on your part to turn that into a sponsor role? Do you feel comfortable enough with your mentee to do so? What else is needed? How might this be mutually beneficial?
- As the sponsored professional: Consider speaking with your coach or mentor about your next steps and your interest in finding someone to take a more active role in your advancement. They might volunteer themselves if your relationship is strong. If not, they might put you in touch with someone with whom you can build a new professional relationship.
- As the sponsor: You want a potential sponsorship candidate to know that you truly care about their development and in connecting them with the right opportunities. As you hold much of the power in this relationship, take the lead being clear about what you will be able to do in your role as sponsor. This will help them have clear expectations within the relationship and avoid misunderstandings about what prospective outcomes to anticipate.
- As the sponsored professional: You want a potential sponsor to know what you stand for and what you’re capable of. Demonstrate to your sponsor that you care about your own reputation, and will care about theirs when they go out on a limb for you, by continuing to build your competence and maintaining your professionalism and integrity. Be clear with your sponsor about your hopes and intentions for your professional path.
- As the sponsor: Look for individuals whose strengths, talents, and skills compliment yours. Seek ways to include these individuals in projects or other opportunities to be involved with you.
- As the sponsored professional: Think about the needs of your sponsor and stand out from the crowd. Demonstrate your alignment with their work or vision. Contribute to their projects when possible and appropriate. Find helpful ways to let your sponsor know about your successes or challenges you’ve overcome. Make it easy for them to advocate for you with the latest examples of your excellent performance.
- As the sponsor: Be willing to share your contacts and associate your name. Be sure that you are comfortable putting your reputation on the line, for the right person, at the right time.
- As the sponsored professional: Help your sponsor know what you’re interested and not interested in, both in professional development assignments and new positions. Don’t let them put their name on the line for an opportunity for you that is not what you’re interested in.
For an in-depth dive into sponsorship, see what Sylvia Ann Hewlett says in Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career
For a snapshot of Hewlett’s work, check out her interview with Forbes here.