What Are Career Sponsors and Why Are They Important?

Much has been written about the importance of mentors in your career. And there’s no need to downplay the benefits of a mentor. They’re someone you can confide your career challenges, goals and frustrations in. Mentors play a critical role in helping you navigate important decisions and manage challenges as they arise.
Sponsorships for your career
But are mentors the people who are best positioned to lift you up in your career and take it to new heights? Probably not.
On the other hand, career sponsors have the power to skyrocket your career. Unlike mentors, who are confidantes and there to encourage you, sponsors offer you a track to promotional opportunities, elevated responsibilities and greater status. A sponsorship is more than a promotion—it’s a way to substantially grow your career and change your entire trajectory. Sponsorships can be career-changing (and life changing!), that is, if you can find one and if you make yourself available to sponsors.
Who are sponsors?
When you’re considering career sponsors, you’re not looking for the warm and fuzzies and you’re not looking for a friend. Think more along the lines of clout; power; the people at the top who can pull strings and move mountains on your behalf. These are your career allies. They have the ability to not just listen to you and empathize, but open doors.
Sponsors are not necessarily people in your circle. In fact, they’re likely not in your circle. These people have powerful contacts and a heck of a lot of authority. Don’t just reach out to the managers around you, but seek senior leaders at least two levels above you.
The benefits of sponsorship
Sponsorship has a real, quantifiable impact. Check out these numbers from the HBR which clearly shows a link between sponsorship and the ability for women to gain confidence and take on stretch assignments:

  • Without a sponsor behind them, 43% of men and 36% of women will ask their manager for a stretch assignment; with sponsor support, the numbers rise, respectively, to 56% and 44%.
  • The majority of unsponsored men (67%) and women (70%) resist confronting their boss about a raise; with a sponsor in their corner, nearly half of men and 38% of women summon the courage to negotiate.
  • A sponsor confers a statistical career benefit of anything from 22 to 30%, depending on what’s being requested (assignment or pay raise) and who’s asking (men or women).

Finding your sponsor
Hard work will only take you so far—to find your sponsor, you need to get noticed from senior leaders. A few strategies to do so could include:

  • Perform and deliver on work assignments—every time. Take every interaction that includes meetings or deliverables associated with senior leaders seriously. And knock it out of the ballpark every time. This creates a sense of appreciation and loyalty.
  • But, as many know, just doing well is not usually good enough. Talk about your accomplishments, to your colleagues, managers and senior leaders. Ask for others to talk about your accomplishments on your behalf, or to facilitate introductions.
  • Develop your personal brand. What do you want to be known for? How do you want people to feel about you and perceive you? Being intentional about these things will help to set you apart.
  • Go above and beyond to add value by learning new things. Aim for the job you want to be in. Take online courses, read books and learn new schools outside of work that can add real value to your job and the future jobs you wish to hold.

Have you had success with finding a sponsor – what worked for you?