Who’s The Best Person To Fast-Track Your Career?

You need someone up top to pull you up. And they’re not going to be a mentor.

Who’s The Best Person To Fast-Track Your Career?

You may already know that you can find a mentor if you put your tentacle to it. But even more crucial for your career are sponsors–high-status people who can pull you up to their strata.


How much so?

As Quartz reports, having a sponsor–the kind of person who can vouch for you behind closed doors and help you dodge a bullet or two–can have major effects. According to author-economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s research following 100 managers and 9,983 workers in the U.S. and U.K. from 2010 to 2012, a sponsorship can lead to a 30% increase in getting stretch assignments and landing raises.

The difference between sponsorship and mentorship

As Hewlett wrote in the New York Times, a sponsor does much more than a mentor:

Mentors act as a sounding board or a shoulder to cry on, offering advice as needed and support and guidance as requested; they expect very little in return. Sponsors, in contrast, are much more vested in their protégés, offering guidance and critical feedback because they believe in them.

Sponsors advocate on their protégés’ behalf, connecting them to important players and assignments. In doing so, they make themselves look good. And precisely because sponsors go out on a limb, they expect stellar performance and loyalty.

What sponsors can do

Sponsors, with their super-connecting, weight-throwing capabilities, accelerate already fast-tracked careers. Such was the case of Sheryl Sandberg, who found a champion in Larry Summers; he selected her as a research assistant and took her to the World Bank and the Treasury, as Hewlett notes. That degree of prestige placed here on the radar of Eric Schmidt at Google, which was transformed into the rapport she formed with Mark Zuckerberg.

But here’s the thing: Just as in hiring and dating, people associate with people who are just like them–what’s called cultural matching. Which means that since it’s mostly old white dudes who have the capabilities of sponsorship, they most select young white dudes to sponsor. That’s indicative of a diversity problem–and not the kind of diversity you tend to think of.

How to find a sponsor: offer something in return

Frank Ocean sang that unrequited love is like a one-man cult; the same goes for folks who will help you in your career. Without cutting things into fractions, we have to admit that the relationship needs to be reciprocal.


So when you’re courting a possible sponsor, Elmer notes, you need to find what you can offer them: It doesn’t have to be tickets to the Super Bowl or a fancy-schmancy private lunch, but if you can drop a keynote at their conference, you’ll make yourself more fetching. It’s the same as nabbing meetings with insanely busy people: Show them how you can help their lives.

Hat tip: Quartz

[Image: Flickr user Mariusz_St]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.