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Do You Want A Professional Sponsor Earn It Do You Want A Professional Sponsor? Earn It
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Want the Support of a Professional Sponsor? Earn It.

Jo Eisenhart •  September 22, 2014 | Business and Careers

There’s been quite a bit of buzz lately around the concept of professional sponsorship and the suggestion that workers will have a stronger chance of getting hired, promoted or landing the ‘plum’ assignment if they have someone actively advocating on their behalf.

What exactly is a professional sponsor? A sponsor is someone in a position of power who uses his or her influence to advocate on your behalf. A sponsor could be your boss, your boss’s boss or anyone who’s in a position to influence others and who knows you well enough to put his or her reputation on the line for you. That’s in contrast to a mentor, who is typically someone who provides advice and helps you develop skills. Mentors help individuals get better, while sponsors help individuals get ahead.

Given this, I believe sponsorship is critical to success in business. Yet, as the merits of sponsorship weave their way into more and more workplace discussions, one thing seems to be missing from much of the conversation: How do you go about getting a sponsor? You can’t just walk up to someone and ask him or her to be your sponsor. Instead, sponsorship is based on credibility that is earned over time.

The benefits of sponsorship are clear. According to research conducted by The Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), women who have sponsors are more likely to:

  • Negotiate a pay raise.
  • Request getting assigned to a high-visibility team or coveted project.
  • Stay employed full time as mothers.
  • Feel they’re progressing through the ranks at a satisfactory pace.

For those who have their eyes set on the corner office, CTI founding president Sylvia Ann Hewlett says that support from a senior person with influence is critical. In a recent blog she wrote, “With sponsorship, the ambitious and highly qualified make it to the senior-most suite, no matter how stiff the headwinds. Without it, they languish in the lower echelons—no matter how hard they work, no matter how well they perform.”

Not only have I personally benefited from people who have advocated for me, I’ve been an advocate for people who I believe have potential. And as I look at the idea of sponsorship from both sides, I’ve come to understand three important truths about sponsorship:

  • Sponsorship is earned. Only when a person knows your work, trusts you and can attest to your character will he or she likely be an advocate for you. Most won’t risk their own reputation on anything less.
  • Sponsorship doesn’t have to be formal. Because sponsorships are based on professional relationships that are cultivated over time, they often develop informally. Years ago, I was offered a position at a new company because a former colleague suggested the hiring manager get to know me. This colleague and I never said, “Let’s be sponsors for each other.”  Instead, the recommendation came as a natural extension of our strong professional relationship.
  • Sponsorships are two-way streets. If you’re fortunate enough to have a professional sponsor stick his or her neck out for you, don’t disappoint. In return for their advocacy, they’ll expect you to live up to your potential. And they may ask you to work on aspects of your career development before they’re willing to go to bat for you. After all, their credibility is riding on your success.

So, rather than ask how you can find a sponsor, I’d suggest you think about how you can earn sponsorship. If you have a mentor, work on developing that relationship from one of advice to one of advocacy. Take your mentor’s advice to heart and demonstrate how you are growing; always show that you’re eager to improve and succeed. And if you don’t have a mentor, realize that sponsorship can also grow from relationships. If others trust you and know you deliver exceptional work, they will be more likely to advocate for you. Your role is to make sure you are someone who’s worth advocating for.

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