Career sponsorship is a strategic leadership development and diversity, equity and inclusion practice that is gaining attention and being deployed in many top performing organizations. 

This post is dedicated to the key aspects of career sponsorship including: what sponsorship is and how it differs from mentorship; benefits to the organization, protégé and sponsor; how to begin being a sponsor; and how to receive sponsorship.

What is career sponsorship and how does it differ from mentorship?

Developing others is a significant part of a leader’s role.  Career sponsorship is another tool to aid in doing this effectively.  

Career sponsorship is a practice of advocacy and support that is distinctly different from mentorship.  Where mentors give advice and coaching, sharing lessons from their experience, career sponsors endorse individuals to help them obtain new career opportunities and assignments. Many refer to this as a sponsor – protégé relationship.

To illustrate the distinction in this function, think of a mentee, who is high potential. This person may be learning and growing quickly, but not quite ready for the next level. It is possible in time that he/she would become your next protégé as they grow their proficiency.  Protégés are individuals who already have the skill, competency, and motivation, yet are underutilized and/or lack exposure in the organization. Mentees can become protégés, but protégés do not always require mentorship. 

What are the benefits of sponsorship?

Untapped talent is a significant risk for organizations, correlating to turnover and disengagement. Career sponsorship accelerates careers, makes better use of the organization’s talent resources, and retains talent.  Through sponsorship, proteges have increased job satisfaction and stronger commitment to their organization, because they feel valued. In essence, sponsors help get high potential employees noticed and create opportunities for them to advance, benefiting both the organization and the individual. 

There are also benefits to sponsors. Those who take a sponsorship role experience greater loyalty and transparency from the protégé, helping the leader keep a more realistic pulse of what’s happening at all levels of the organization. Additionally, we have found that leaders feel more connected and satisfied when it’s apparent they’ve had a positive impact on another person’s career path. 

How to become a sponsor

Sponsorship starts with building trust. This means finding opportunities for potential protégés to build your confidence in their potential. You can start by offering opportunities to potential protégés to see how they do. Some examples are: ask him/her to serve on a committee or cross-functional project team; connect them to a key individual in the organization and see how they are able to build that relationship — do they incorporate any insights gained into their work, and what did key the individual think about the conversation/interaction?

Look for top performers who have good ideas, demonstrate loyalty to the organization and think about long term organizational success, have an appropriate amount of candor and will provide honest feedback, and have a strong reputation with others (although this is not necessary). Keep your eye out for possibilities in meetings, gatherings, presentations, etc. Invite one or two individuals for coffee or lunch, then build a deeper relationship with them and develop rapport by find something you have in common- passion, values, hobbies.  Finally, ask them where they want to take their careers and how they want to develop.

Avoid falling into the trap of picking someone who reminds you of yourself.  Sponsors will learn so much more from someone whose experience is different from his/her own.  Consider sponsoring women, minorities, and veterans.  Studies show fewer of them are selected for advancement, which perpetuates leadership gaps.

How to become a protégé

Start by demonstrating good ideas, loyalty, candor, and honest feedback.  Request a conversation with potential sponsors, offer to help where they need it, let them know about your experience and your aspirations, and ask for feedback or thought partnership on something you are working on.  The goal is to over time help them want to put their name on the line for you, help them know what experiences you desire, and ask them to look out for opportunities for you.

Lead the way

Perhaps you or someone you know felt forced to switch organizations in order to move up or find a dream job. Considering the benefits for all involved, the payoff of career sponsorship is worth the investment. You can lead the way – be a sponsor and/or find a sponsor. 

Contact us for career sponsorship workshops for your executive team including why sponsorship is important and how to do it.

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