For anyone who has achieved career success, there’s probably a litany of people who helped you along the way, whether it was providing counsel or advice or opportunities to succeed.
Think back for a second – Who gave you your first big career opportunity? The person who took a chance on you? Could you imagine being where you are in your career without that? I know for me, I wouldn’t be where I am today without the help of a handful of people who opened doors for me that I didn’t have access to on my own.
During my first year at Deloitte, I had wrapped up a project at one of my very first clients and I was looking for another project. I couldn’t find anything, so I reached out to a Partner at the firm who I had met previously during my first week of training. Not knowing if he would remember me or not, in my email I re-shared our conversation topics, and asked if he needed help with anything he was working on. A few days later, someone on his team reached out to me about a project opportunity that related directly to the topics in our conversation.
Despite not really knowing me that well outside of a few minutes of a conversation at training (and that we had a mutual interest in music and sports) The leader took a chance on me by giving me access to an opportunity that I was probably not qualified or ready for. When I took the assignment, I was surrounded by a great team, who went out of their way to make sure I had what it took to be successful. That assignment changed the trajectory of my career, and led to numerous other opportunities and experiences that I could have never found otherwise.
Not only did it help me find experiences and opportunities that I was interested in, but it also helped me hone my craft and build my own brand and thought leadership in key areas. I got to meet and work alongside some of the most senior leaders in the firm, and built my own credibility and expertise. And while I worked hard to go above and beyond to deliver exceptional results, the senior leader worked behind the scenes with HR to ensure I was properly evaluated and compensated for my efforts. This experience changed the course of my career, and I would not be where I am today without that opportunity and support.
While I didn’t know it at the time, what I encountered then was my very first Sponsor. A sponsor is someone who sees your talent and potential, and uses their own political and relationship capital to you access to experiences and relationships that you cannot find on your own. They’ll put their own reputation on the line to advocate for you.
When we talk about people who do these things, we tend to call them to mentors. Mentors are important, but they focus on giving us advice, share perspective, teach us knew skills, and being a sounding board. We all should continue to seek and develop relationships with mentors.
But not everyone who mentors you has the power to help you accelerate, move up, get to the next level, advocate for you when it really counts. Yes, mentors matter, but to accelerate our careers, break through to the next level, or achieve exponential success, we need sponsors to actually to help us achieve greater career outcomes.
A quick rundown of the difference between Mentors and Sponsors (via Center For Talent Innovation
- Senior Person who believes in your potential and is willing to take a bet on you
- Advocates for you to achieve promotions, access to opportunities and experiences
- Encourages and empowers you to take risks
- Expects a great deal from you
Sponsors have a voice at decision-making tables, champion their protégés for promotions and critical opportunities when they are not in the room, and provide “air cover” for the less experienced individual to take risks. Sponsors may also make introductions to senior leaders, promote visibility, and provide critical feedback. In return, the protégé repays the sponsor’s investment by achieving exceptional results that reflect well on him or he
- Experienced person willing to help and support you
- Builds your confidence and provides a sounding board
- Expects little in return
Center for Talent Innovation founder and CEO Sylvia Ann Hewlett describes a mentor as someone who gives valuable career support and advice, builds self-esteem, and provides a sounding board. He or she has the time and desire to aid the beneficiary in self-assessment and “blue-sky thinking,” and is often considered a role model.
While it’s important to have sponsors to achieve success, the purpose of this article is not to talk about how to find sponsors, but rather, why you should be a sponsor. There are a bunch of benefits of being a sponsor, but here are three:
- Having an impact on others – Being a sponsor allows you to drive impact for others. The impact you can make by providing an opportunity to someone else who wouldn’t have access to that opportunity on their own is incredibly powerful.
- Improving your own network – When you invest and sponsor others, you begin building your own network, and you develop your reputation as someone who goes out of their way to sponsor others. This has tangible benefits for when you need to hire other talent for your team, or if you are trying to drive a specific project/initiative and you have to get others to buy into your goal. When you have a positive reputation, others are probably more likely to trust you or work with you. And when you’re seen as a champion of talent, this certainly helps your case when you are trying to compete for top talent to join your team
- Driving Change – It’s been statistically proven time and time again that organizations with diverse teams drive better results, but despite this many organizations struggle with attracting, retaining, and developing diverse talent. Sponsorship when done right, is a way to buck this change. By sponsoring people who are underrepresented, or who don’t look like we do, we can help drive the change that’s needed to create the diverse workforce that yields better business results.
A few more key points about sponsorship
It’s different than mentorship – mentorship is also important (you should do that too) but sponsorship has a different focus and outcomes.
You don’t need to be an executive to do it – While Executives can and should be sponsors, especially when it comes to accelerating career paths within a company, anyone can be a sponsor so as long as you’re providing someone with access to opportunities they otherwise would not have.
You can use it for anyone – But please also consider focusing on helping populations who are different than you. Why? Because diversity is a driver of business outcomes, and if we only help people who look like us, we’ll never fully benefit from the benefits of a diverse workforce
It provides extrinsic and intrinsic benefits – I always recommend doing things because they are fundamentally the right thing to do, but the great thing about both sponsorship and mentorship is when you do it right it actually helps drive results for you. Personally and selfishly, knowing that you had a positive impact on someone else and helped them achieve something provides personal fulfillment and meaning (In addition to helping them achieve their own goals) Furthermore, if you develop a reputation for sponsoring others, you can probably expect future opportunities either for additional sponsorship or just being aware of other opportunities. that’s a great reputation to have. If you are hiring for roles on your team, or need the help of others to get a project or initiative accomplished, the power of your reputation will make others want to help you and see you succeed.
Formal sponsorship programs that are run by companies and organizations are always a great place to start. Furthermore, while I’m a believer that any relationship (mentorship or sponsorship) works best through organic development, if you are in a position to be a sponsor I urge and challenge you to be proactive and take the initiative to identify someone who you can sponsor.
Here’s where you can look to sponsor people:
- Identifying a more junior colleague on your team who is looking for greater opportunities to accelerate their career
- Connecting with a younger alum of your alma mater looking to expand into a new field and connecting them to people you know in that field who could potentially hire them
- Reaching out to a friend or colleague who doesn’t have access to the same experiences and opportunities as you do and using your network to open up opportunities for them
Being a sponsor is a great way to use your privilege, resources, and position to drive positive impact, especially those who are underserved or underrepresented. It’s also a way to invest in your own network by investing in other people. But more than that, investing your time and energy into someone else can change their life, and that can have an incredible impact.
Think back to that individual who sponsored you, and gave you a shot, and consider the impact they had on you and your life. Imagine if someone (or numerous people) felt that way about you…