Friends in High Places: Finding a Sponsor to Advance Your Career

“I threw your hat into the ring for that job. Expect a call.”

Wouldn’t it be great to get that message from a senior executive telling you about what could be your next career move? How do you find the right person to take such an active interest in your career?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013 Fortune The Most Powerful Women Washington, D.C., USA 4:30 PM–6:00 PM MPW HIGH SCHOOL NOTEBOOK MENTORING Presented By ANN INC. and Gap International
MPW Mentors share career advice with high school seniors. She started as an intern, rose to top executive and now advises Starbucks, DreamWorks Animation, Groupon and Estee Lauder. A business-world star shares her lessons of life and career success.
Mellody Hobson, President, Ariel Investments
Interviewer: Pattie Sellers, Fortune Photograph by Danuta Otfinowski/Fortune Most Powerful Women
Flickr photo by Danuta Otfinowski/Fortune Most Powerful Women

Mentors are great, but an increasing number of women are finding sponsors to catapult their careers. A sponsor is more proactive than a mentor – promoting you behind the scenes and acting as a powerful spokesperson for you and your accomplishments.

“Sponsorship is the only way to get those top appointments,” says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career. She is also co-author of The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling report, which identified precisely what a sponsor can do for you:

  • Expand your own perception of what you can do
  • Make connections to senior leaders
  • Promote your visibility
  • Connect you to career opportunities
  • Make connections outside your company
  • Give career advice
  • Advocate for your next promotion
  • Calls in a favor on your behalf

Getting Sponsored

Think a sponsor is what you need? Here’s how to make your accomplishments known to those around you and – more importantly – above you:

Take inventory. “Before kick-starting the search process, take the time to develop an inventory of your characteristics, skills, achievements and experiences,” writes Shann McGrail, Program Director, Mentorship & Career Sponsorship in her Women in Communications & Technology blog. “Ask yourself these questions: What do I really want next in my career? What’s stopping me? What am I prepared to do and not willing to do? As part of the process, take a look at any gaps as well, as these will be equally valuable in providing a sense of what you need to look for in a sponsor, suggests Shann. For example, if your rep is that you always get things done, but in your next role, you seek more vision and strategy, that’s a gap to close. “It’s a clue to what to look for in a sponsor,” she says.

Summon up your star power. Doing your work won’t necessarily get you noticed. “You need to become a known entity,” says Heather Foust-Cummings, senior director of research, Catalyst. “Volunteer for bigger assignments, attend conferences and become active in your industry.” You’ll need to maximize your visibility to a pool of potential sponsors by seeking out roles that provide wide exposure within your company – and ideally also to senior people at other companies. Each person you meet is a potential sponsor, so you should strive to showcase your strengths and potential in all of your interactions.

Promote your existing mentor. You might consider converting your mentor to a sponsor, suggests Shann. Would he or she take a more active role in your career advancement? If your mentor refuses, use it as an opportunity to get valuable feedback that can only help you as you continue your search. In other words, be willing to constructively accept the feedback and act on it. If you can demonstrate that you’ve heard what’s said and take action steps to address the feedback, perhaps your mentor will reconsider. If not, you’ll be better equipped to look for a sponsor.

Tap into your network. Is there someone you already know who is aligned with your goals and reputation? If none comes to mind, ask industry colleagues who they consider to be a visionary or strategist and if an introduction is possible, says Shann. “Would-be sponsors in large organizations are ideally two levels above you with line of sight to your role,” says Sylvia Ann Hewlett. This kind of exposure lets you get on a potential sponsor’s radar so you can interact with them in a more natural way.

Don’t force a friendship. Most sponsor relationships evolve over time and likely won’t happen if you flat out ask someone to be your sponsor. But once you’ve established a working relationship, don’t hesitate to discuss your career, and particular jobs or companies you have your sights on, with a potential sponsor. And always hedge your bets against your sponsor leaving their company by developing relationships with multiple potential sponsors, says Sylvia. Most importantly, exude confidence and ambition when building a relationship with a potential sponsor and let things evolve organically.

A Word from Your Sponsor…

Senior business leaders who’ve been sponsors look for a protégé who has exceptional talents, high potential, focused drive – and someone who is fiercely loyal, according to Forbes. After all, sponsors have their own legacy to build, as they help you build your brand.