Sponsors Are The New Mentors—And They Really Need You

In an excerpt from her new book, Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor, author Sylvia Ann Hewlett explains how, unlike mentorship, sponsorship operates on a two-way street.

Sponsorship is incredibly reciprocal.

Protégés attract sponsors by delivering in exceptional ways and secure sponsorship by remaining utterly devoted, even as they distinguish themselves as stars in their own right. In return, sponsors invest in their protégés, not because they’re impelled to pay it forward but because they recognize the incredible benefit to their own careers of building a loyal cadre of outstanding performers who can extend their reach, build their legacy, and burnish their reputation. Over time, both parties win. Indeed, the win-win aspect of sponsorship is what accounts for its extraordinary leverage and durability.

Contrast this to the decidedly one-way street of mentorship. Mentors give: They devote time, impart wisdom, and act as a sounding board (or a shoulder to cry on). Mentees receive: They’re obliged to do nothing but show up and listen. Mentors take an interest in the mentee’s career, but not a stake in it, because they’re not going to be held accountable for outcomes. Mentorship is at heart an expenditure rather than an investment, a gift rather than an alliance. It’s doomed to peter out: The mentee outgrows the mentor’s range of experience, and the mentor moves on to needier novitiates.

What this means is that the nature of your support relationships is up to you. You’ll get back what you put in. If you’re a high-potential or strong performer, you’ll attract the interest of your superiors, but whether that interest translates into mentorship or sponsorship is a function of your investment. You might be tapped for development, but you’re not going to be given a ride on the coattails of anyone who doesn’t see you pulling your weight (and then some). Mentors may pick you, but you pick your sponsors by committing yourself to their best interests.

Make no mistake: Sponsors, unlike mentors, really need you. They need your support and manpower. They need you to build their bench strength or complement their skill sets. They need you to help them realize their vision and secure their legacy. You advance their careers, surprising as that might seem. There’s a protégé effect akin to the sponsor effect in terms of career traction for leaders. White male leaders with a posse of protégés are 11% more satisfied with their own rate of advancement than leaders who haven’t invested in up-and-comers. Leaders of color who’ve developed young talent are overall 24% more satisfied with their career progress than those who haven’t built that base of support.

Just how important protégées are to their sponsors was made clear in a conversation I had with a Fortune 100 CEO. He told me that when he does that final interview with an executive at his company who is being considered for a promotion to the C-suite, he asks the all-important question: "How many people do you have in your pocket?" What he means by this, he explained, is "How many talented young people have you sponsored over the years—people who now hold key positions in this company—so that if I asked you to do something impossible next week that involved liaising across seven geographies and five functions, you could pull it off? How many leaders out there ‘owe you one,’ think you’re wonderful, and would give huge priority to your project?" Fundamentally, he told me, "I’m not interested in anyone who doesn’t have deep pockets."

So have that bench strength and you will go far, as far as you make clear you want to go. Don’t wait to be tapped for special projects or asked to assume a leadership role. Act like a leader, and leaders will take you under their wings. Show vision, and visionaries will invite you to do more of it. The power to work the levers rests squarely in your hands.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett is an economist and the founding president and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation. She is the author of 12 books, including Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career. Follow her on Twitter at @sahewlett.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career by Sylvia Ann Hewlett. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.

[Image: Flickr user Liz Badley]

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