How to Make Sponsorship Your Golden Ticket

Sheila Murphy
May 24, 2021

In the movie Willy Wonka, the entire world is trying to find Wonka’s golden tickets to access a limited experience in the chocolate factory. As the movie progresses, we see that the ticket did not always lead to a fabulous result. For example, Augustus falls into the chocolate river and may have the same fate as the candies. The Oompa Loompas must roll Violet off quickly to squeeze the blueberry juice out of her body to save her life. 

So what happened that the golden ticket did not work out for these children?

Each of them came to the relationship with Wonka selfishly, expecting something for nothing. Only Charlie - who appreciates that he disappointed Wonka and tries to remedy it - wins the sponsorship prize. 

The same is true of workplace sponsorship. To earn and maintain sponsorship, you must come to it with an open heart, work hard, and focus on pleasing your sponsor. 

Last week, I explained what sponsorship is, the advantages of having a sponsor, and how it can impact your career trajectory.

Sponsors recommend you for opportunities and speak for you when you are not in the room. They are willing to use political capital for your benefit.

Given the benefits, everyone, like the entire world in Willy Wonka, wants to know how to get the golden ticket to one of these relationships. 

However, like the children in Willy Wonka, not everyone appreciates and is willing to do what is necessary to create and retain these relationships.

What are sponsors looking for in a protégé?

Sponsorship is an earned relationship. Sponsors look for the following behaviors when considering a potential protégé. These behaviors are not natural to embody, and that is what makes sponsorship so challenging to obtain.

  • People who embody leadership attributes and values
  • Exceptional performance, potential, and desire
  • Go-getters/producers
  • People who understand the trade-off of sponsorships and are willing to meet the demands necessary to achieve a more significant role
  • People who understand and influence others and actively listen to, empathize with, and shape the thinking of others, including those more senior
  • People who demonstrate business maturity and organizational savvy
  • People who want to impact the business in increasingly more impactful ways
  • People who look beyond the current role and suggest thoughtful process improvements
  • People who always give more than asked for by managers, think about what is next and delivers two steps ahead
  • People who fix a problem or take on a project nobody else wants
  • People who appreciate what makes them unique and uses their value add
  • People who demonstrate skills and competencies at least two levels up
  • People who demonstrate innovation, high learning agility, and the ability to adapt
  • People who display an incredible work ethic
  • People who have a broad scope and seek cross-functional projects and opportunities

Not everyone has earned a chance to be sponsored. If you haven’t:

  • Solicit honest feedback to find out why you haven’t
  • Be open to what you will hear
  • Take actions to become more attractive to potential sponsors

The reasons can vary from lack of interactions with potential sponsors and lack of knowledge of what you have accomplished to the hardest one of all: you have not earned sponsorship because of your commitment to your work. You can address the feedback in various ways. To do so, you need to develop a plan. Working with a mentor on this may be helpful.

How do you cultivate a potential sponsorship relationship?

If the feedback you receive indicates that you are acting like someone who has earned a potential sponsorship, doing the following can increase the odds that someone will take you on as a protégé.

  • Build on a mentoring relationship.
  • Increase your visibility by leading a committee, taking on a stretch project, or working on something that no one else wants.
  • Identify higher-ups who can either inspire you or have the network skills to advance you. While they must choose you, you can try to have them get to know you, your goals, and your successes without being too political.
  • Potential protégés should smartly cultivate potential sponsors and learn to “toot” their horns appropriately.
  • Have a potential sponsor see you in action.
  • Once you have a sponsor, you need to earn it every day. Don’t take steps that will cause the sponsor to doubt the relationship.

If the feedback indicates that you have not earned a sponsorship, you need to take a hard look at your performance and develop a plan. It would help if you also thought about whether your organization will be open to a rebirth. If it is not, you may need to think about whether another firm is the right place to go - either way, you need to assess the feedback honestly.

If possible, you want to cultivate several sponsors because a sponsor can leave organizations, and having more than one can lessen the impact of a sponsor going. Additionally, having external sponsors can open doors outside of your organization.

Sponsorship can make a tremendous difference in a person’s career, and it is not free. You need to earn sponsorship before you receive it and afterward. Remember, though, “earning it” does not guarantee success; the right people still need to know what you have accomplished and have a relationship with you. So on top of working hard, you need to develop a brand and robust network. 

If you want to ride the glass elevator to success, sponsorship could be just the ticket if you are willing to devote the time and energy. And as Wonka said, “Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he wanted… “He lived happily ever after.”

Are you ready to do what is necessary to earn a sponsor and the benefits that come with her? 


Want more tips on how you can advance in your career?

Download Sheila's 10 Tips for In-House Counsel Struggling to Advance where she shares her time-tested tips for in-house counsel to release fear, jump-start your career, and propel towards promotion.

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