Could a Sponsor Help You Get To The Top Faster?

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TwitterCenter for Talent Innovation CEO Sylvia Ann Hewlett

What does it really take to succeed and get ahead? Well, there are the basics: a healthy mix of inner drive, talent, timing, and – let's face it – a bit of luck never hurts. But, also, having someone to support you professionally is major. Who is speaking up for you? Who is your champion? The importance of mentors comes up a lot in these discussions, but perhaps it's really a sponsor that you need.

If you're new to the concept of sponsorship, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Founder and CEO of The Center for Talent Innovation, and author of Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor, shares some of her insights about the role sponsors play and their importance.


What would you say is the key difference between mentoring and sponsorship?

Mentors give valuable advice, build self-esteem, and provide an indispensable sounding board when you're unsure about the next steps. But they are not your ticket to the top. Sponsors, on the other hand, see furthering your career as an important investment in his or her own career, organization, or vision. Sponsors may advise or steer you, but their chief role is to develop you as a leader.

What are best practices for maintaining a successful sponsor/protégée relationship?

Always remember that the nature of the sponsorship relationship is up to the protégé. A protégé gets back what he or she puts into the relationship. You must demonstrate that you are capable of leadership and can be trusted with high visibility assignments. You must come through on at least two of the following fronts: trustworthy and discreet, covers their sponsor's back, promotes their legacy, brings different perspective/skills set, leads with a yes, burnishes their sponsor's brand across the organization, and builds their "A team."

What companies can we look to that get it right?

Last year, The Washington Post published an article about law firm Crowell & Moring's move to create pathways to sponsorship in an effort to diversify its leadership ranks. The article serves as a best practice example for other companies that may be struggling with retaining/accelerating diverse talent. Organizations from a variety of sectors, including Bristol-Myers Squibb, American Express and Sodexho were also acknowledged as companies that have used sponsorship initiatives to really move the needle in terms of getting more diverse voices around decision-making tables.

How does someone find the right sponsor?

Select potential sponsors from a pool of your supporters who are aware of your strengths, stand to benefit from your help, and have the clout to move you forward toward your goals. Ideally, if you work in a large organization, find a sponsor that is two levels above you with a line of sight into your performance. When you've homed in on a would-be sponsor, do not ask for sponsorship, but instead make yourself visible by asking for stretch assignments and/or requesting a meeting with him/her to discuss career goals. Attend networking events, conferences, gatherings where you have the opportunity to approach your target. Offer your would-be sponsor your help in a looming business challenge.

What types of program success metrics can you share about the impact of having a sponsor on a person's career?

Sponsorship positively impacts both parties' careers. CTI research finds that seventy percent of men and 68 percent of women who have sponsors are satisfied with their rate of advancement, compared to only 57 percent of men and women without sponsors. Additionally, we find that sponsors who cultivate protégées enhance not only their career outcome but also their experience as a leader. Sponsors become more effective (and less overworked) because they have an "A Team" to turn to whenever a crisis looms or a deadline threatens or a massive opportunity knocks. When we asked respondents why they sponsor, 82% of men and 61% of women said "because it benefits me."
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