If you thought finding and cultivating a mentor with clout would be your key to career success, you were dead wrong.
Mentors may offer an open door and helpful guidance, but little more. To win, you need a sponsor, says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, CEO of think tank The Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) and author of just released “Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career.”
“A mentor gives you friendly advice,” says Hewlett. “A sponsor is senior in your organisation or world and has the power to get you that next job. It’s not about empathy.”
CTI has tracked the “sponsor effect” since 2010 in four U.S.-based and global studies that clearly show that sponsorship — not mentorship — is how power is transferred in the workplace. When it comes to getting ahead you need more than the counsel of a supporter; you need someone to advocate for you when you’re not in the room. That takes someone who believes in you and has the juice to make it happen.
Sponsors have three attributes, Hewlett says: They believe in your potential and are prepared to take a bet on you; they have a voice at the table and are willing to be your champion; and they provide you the cover you need to take the risks necessary to succeed. While mentors listen, sponsors act — by telling you what you need to know, clearing obstacles from your path, and making your success their business, she says.
In the corporate world, a sponsor might be your boss or your boss’ boss. For an entrepreneur, sponsorship often comes in the form of a venture capitalist or an influencer who helps you make connections and raise money.
Sponsorship is not a gift, says Hewlett. You can’t just walk up to someone and ask, “Will you be my sponsor?” Instead, it is earned. “They have to truly believe in your ability,” she says. “If I go to bat for a young talent, I have to be sure she’s going to come through. You’re very much aligning reputations.”
So how do you impress a potential sponsor? Hewlett outlines the three most important tactics:
Exceed expectations, and make your performance known.
You’ve got to come through on an obvious front: stellar performance. Hit your numbers, meet deadlines, and go above and beyond, Hewlett says. “Nothing makes you easier to sponsor than outstanding results.”
You’ve also got to make sure your sponsor knows about your success. Stay on top of your numbers, and keep your sponsor looped in. If they can easily point to your past successes, they’ll be better equipped to push for you to get a big assignment or promotion.
Demonstrate that you are trustworthy and loyal.
“A leader wants you to make them look good,” says Hewlett. By advocating for you, sponsors are putting their own reputations on the line, so you have to be willing to help them succeed, too. According to her research, managers value a protégé who’s loyal more than they value someone who’s collaborative, visionary, or even highly productive.
Demonstrate that you have your sponsor’s back by sharing valuable information, offering your assistance, giving honest feedback in private, and aligning yourself with them and their viewpoints in public. “Star performers are very likely to attract sponsors, and loyal performers are very likely to keep them,” Hewlett says.
Bring something special to the table.
Identify and develop your best, most unique skill, and deploy it to make yourself indispensable, advises Hewlett. Ideally, this skill will not only set you apart from your peers but will also be something your sponsor lacks. Then it is additive to their own skillset, she says. The skill may be that you have such emotional intelligence that you can pull a team together in a way your sponsor can’t. It could also be as simple as having tech savvy or knowing a foreign language.
Pat Fili-Krushel, the chairman of NBCUniversal News Group, told Hewlett that whenever she starts a new job and there’s a senior leader who she wants on her side, she figures out what they need to accomplish most urgently and then delivers it to them. Who wouldn’t be pleased?
Despite that for decades mentorship has been the white knight of career success, it hasn’t proven effective, says Hewlett. Research by women’s advocacy group Catalyst found that women are mentored more than men, but men receive 15% more promotions. Meanwhile, research by CTI finds that one in four white men in the middle ranks of workplaces have sponsorship, but only one in eight women and just one in 20 minorities have them.
One of the top reasons women and minorities struggle with securing sponsors is the level of comfort and trust, says Hewlett. Particularly, sexual tension or its reputation-damning outward appearance, which she calls “the 800-pound gorilla” in the room, can keep senior men from helping women, lest their attention seem inappropriate.
“It’s a trip wire,” Hewlett says, “but it can be handled well.” Women can signal to senior men that they are not a threat and to the world that it is a strictly professional relationship with their attire and the way they present themselves, by openly discussing their rich personal lives, and meeting the sponsor in public view, such as having breakfast in the cafeteria or coffee in a common area.
As the evidence for sponsorship’s effectiveness builds, companies are paying attention. Several corporations, including American Express, Cisco, and Deloitte, have launched programs that help senior leaders and high-potential employees find each other. CTI’s research shows these programs are seeing some initial success.
Ultimately, hard work isn’t enough, says Hewlett. You need others to recognise your potential and help you up, and that means having powerful sponsors providing a boost.
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