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Yes, You Need A Mentor, But A Sponsor Will Really Boost Your Career

Have a mentor? Great. Now it’s time to find a sponsor. You’ll have to work harder for their endorsement, but the trade-off is worth it.

Yes, You Need A Mentor, But A Sponsor Will Really Boost Your Career
[Photo: Flickr user Sam Beebe]

You’re aware of mentors guiding and inspiring your career, but how about sponsors? If you really want to get ahead, then you’ll need more than words of wisdom to get there. What you need is someone who has the power to help you get ahead. You need a sponsor.

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Mentors and sponsors, while often confused, are far from the same role, says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor. Tons of mentors are out there, but sponsorship is harder to come by–and makes a much more tangible difference in your career. According to research from the Center for Talent Innovation, where Hewlett is founder and CEO, people with sponsors are 23% more likely to move up in their career than those without sponsors.

So what differentiates sponsors from mentors? “Mentoring is a gift,” says Hewlett. “A sponsor, on the other hand, is more transactional. . . . A senior person is not going to go out of their way unless you have proven your worth.”

But sponsorship isn’t just for people working corporate jobs in giant organizations, many of which often have sponsor programs built into their structure. Finding someone willing to stick his or her neck out to help you move up is as important–if not more so–for entrepreneurs and those of us working on our own. “There is no way up in any career where you don’t need sponsorship,” says Hewlett. “At the end of the day, you need a powerful person to open doors for you.”

Easier said than done. But with a little strategizing, you can be well on your way to having a sponsor of your own. Here are five ways to find and develop a relationship with a sponsor to fundamentally shift your career:

1. Join Networks Filled With Influential People

Finding a sponsor within a corporate structure means looking a few rungs up the ladder for someone in a senior position who is willing to open doors for you. But when you want sponsorship in a less traditional setting, you may have to get creative about where you look. That means being strategic about the networks you join, says Hewlett. “It’s about developing your network, but not randomly,” she adds. “Look for networks you have access to that have more senior people involved.”

Hewlett suggests joining a not-for-profit board in your field where you’ll likely meet others in your industry. “Leading in the charitable sector or outreach sector is a fabulous way of finding a new source of connection,” she says. “You’ve got to make yourself visible.”

2. Don’t Show Off Your Skills; Build Trust

Sponsors are putting their own reputation on the line when they suggest you for a promotion, job, or opportunity. That requires a huge amount of trust. “Trust is as important as performance,” says Hewlett. “You have to be loyal and trustworthy because there’s risk in this.”

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That means building a rapport with a potential sponsor that makes them confident not just in your abilities, but also in your loyalty to them.

3. Turn Mentors Into Sponsors

Getting someone to commit to being your sponsor doesn’t work the same way getting a mentor does. You can’t go up to a person in a position of power and ask them to help you move up professionally. Developing that relationship takes time and a lot of finessing.

Hewlett suggests identifying someone who could be a great sponsor, and first asking that person to mentor you. “Turn it into sponsorship,” she says. Over time, once you’ve developed a solid rapport and have proven your talents and abilities, the relationship can move into more of a sponsorship dynamic.

4. Sponsors Aren’t Guidance Counselors; They’re Gatekeepers

While trying to get someone to mentor you in the hopes of turning that into a sponsorship is one approach to take, understand that a sponsor isn’t someone you have to look up to or want to emulate. It’s a person in a position of power to help you advance your career. “You do not need to like your sponsor,” says Hewlett. “You are not looking for a best friend or someone to share your troubles with.”

Instead you want to put your best foot forward for this person, inspiring confidence in them that you can handle what’s put in front of you. Hewlett warns against oversharing or exposing your vulnerabilities to someone who is helping you advance your career. Save those details for a friend or therapist.

Remember: Sponsors can be gatekeepers to your next promotion, round of funding, or significant career move. Make sure they see how competent and reliable you are.

5. Remember It’s a Transaction

Research has shown that leaders who sponsor do better themselves than those who don’t sponsor, says Hewlett. This makes sense.”You have this posse of fabulous young talent,” she says. But more than just offering confidence or potential for a posse, try to also bring other tangible value to the table when cultivating a sponsorship.

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Find ways to make your skills of use. If you have a background in web design, then you may want to get involved in an organization whose website you notice is outdated. You could offer to contribute your expertise to help rebuild the site as a way to start your relationship with the company’s leader. Make yourself valuable. “The big principle is to give before you get,” says Hewlett.

About the author

Jane Porter writes about creativity, business, technology, health, education and literature. She's a 2013 Emerging Writing Fellow with the Center For Fiction.

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