What Is a Sponsor, and Why Is It Critical to Have One?

Sheila Murphy
June 12, 2020

The impact of a sponsor on a person’s career, especially women and ethnically and racially diverse individuals (who historically lack sponsors), can be dramatic. It can open you up to opportunities, increase your network and enhance your brand. Because sponsors often put themselves out for their protégés, they are much more difficult to obtain and maintain than a mentoring relationship (but mentoring relationships can evolve into sponsorships).   

What is sponsorship?

Sponsorship is using personal influence to strongly advocate for another person’s career development and advancement, usually someone a level or two more junior than you, referred to as a protégé. It can occur at all levels, and some sponsorships are more impactful than others. For example, a person can recommend you to present to a business partner or for a new position or to have you head up a transaction or litigation. All of these recommendations can have an impact on your career and development, but the sizeof the effect is different. Sponsors can be both inside and outside your organization. External sponsors can recommend you for bar panels and positions outside of your company.

Sponsorship is:

·     Primarily about advocacy and advancement: a sponsor uses ongoing influence to produce positive career results or opportunities for a protégé

·     A more intensive, high-stakes form of mentoring; riskier

·     Publicly endorsing protégés, taking risks on their behalf, and arguing for their next move-up development opportunity or higher compensation.

·     Providing visibility and exposure for proteges and vigorously using personal influence on a protégé’s behalf

·     Putting your own reputations and credibility on the line to advocate for their protégés 

Sponsors usually engage in some of the following behaviors:

·     Primarily about advocacy and advancement: a sponsor uses ongoing influence to produce positive career results or opportunities for a protégé

·     Publicly endorse proteges qualifications and take risks on your behalf, often without your knowledge

·     Create the case for higher compensation, a promotion, or a significant leadership position

·     Take a direct role in advocating for proteges by expanding perceptions of what you can do

·     Provide you visibility and exposure

·     Give protégé “air cover” so you can take risks

Sponsorship is not:

·     Favoritism/nepotism

·     An entitlement

·     A promise of promotion

·     The latest fad

·     A free ride

·     Unearned opportunities

·     An unbreakable relationship

How does sponsorship differ from mentoring?

·     Mentoring revolves around advice, counsel and support; mentoring is relational in nature and career oriented.

·     Both the quality of relationship and the factors that determine quality – trust, mutual respect and mutual learning – are critical to the mentoring process.

·     A mentor helps you deal with overall professional development and advancement, not merely performance goals; mentors can cover more wide-ranging, longer-term personal and professional career issues.

How does sponsorship differ from coaching?

·     Coaching primarily deals with performance; coaching is functional and results oriented.

·     Coaching helps the individual become more productive and effective at a specific set of functions, tasks or practices.

·     A coach enables you to identify and set goals in a particular area (function/practice) and develop a plan to achieve those goals.

Why do you want to be a protégé?

Mentoring and coaching are critical to your development and career progressions, but sponsorship gives you some unique advantages

·     More opportunities for development opportunities and promotions

·     Expands the perception of what you can do

·     Enhances a your network and enhances your brand

·     Advice/unvarnished truth on self-presentation, skills and development opportunities

Protégés are not lucky. They have earned their sponsorships, and it is not a free ride but can open up some doors. In the next post, we willexplore ways to position yourself for sponsorship and how to continue to earn that trust.


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