Sponsors vs. mentors: How to find them & why both are critical for your career

One of the biggest mistakes I have observed by professionals of all career levels is not investing the time or energy to find and secure a sponsor. 

Specifically for women, I too often see female professionals, and especially women of color, being over mentored and under sponsored in the workplace. Mentors are colleagues that you go to for advice when you are dealing with a difficult workplace situation, trying to negotiate a salary or hoping to create better work-life harmony. While mentors are critical for career development, there comes a time in every career journey that a sponsor will truly help catapult a person to that next level of success.

One of my former colleagues was going through her annual review, and the senior leaders in the organization were discussing her body of work in comparison to her peers. All of the senior leaders knew her, as she had established a professional brand in her field of expertise that was known on a national level. In fact, a few were even her mentors.

While these leaders were discussing her performance, one or two leaders (male executives) were concerned about the outcomes of her projects not meeting their expectations and questioning the value of her accomplishments. In fact, their comments were truly less about her performance and facts and more about their perception of her.

To her surprise, not a single leader in the meeting advocated for her, truly championed her work or brought to light how her work was being received outside the walls of the organization. As a result, only the loudest voices in the room were heard and she was denied an opportunity for a high-visibility project that would put her on a path to promotion. She ended up being stuck in her position for another year, and she ultimately left the organization.

Having someone be vocal, courageous, and advocate on your behalf can be transformational.

How to find a sponsor

Sponsorship relationships are not transactional. They are developed and nurtured over time and require intentionality on the part of the protégé. Successful protégés have developed their personal value proposition, and specifically, have articulated what unique impact they bring to the organization based on past and current performance. Some of my best sponsors began as mentors, and our relationship changed as I progressed in my career. I began sharing my career aspirations and accomplishments with them on a regular basis, and my sponsors started to appreciate and notice my skills, knowledge and abilities. However, those relationships took time and continual follow-up and follow-through. I also had to be strategic in finding the right sponsor for me, particularly as a woman of color. I wanted someone who understood my unique challenges as an African-American executive and was willing to navigate those challenges with their peers.

Distinguishing a sponsor from a mentor

The single most important sign of a great sponsor is courage. To be successful as a sponsor, you must be willing to give away your political capital and your leadership power to lift others. In many ways, sponsorship can be a risky endeavor for senior level professionals as it requires faith on their part that you will continue to exceed their expectations of performance. Great sponsors are willing to take that risk proudly and speak about you in spaces where you are not.  They champion not just your performance, but your potential. As a result, sponsors have high expectations for their protégés which differs from a mentoring relationship. Mentors tend to focus on providing advice and supporting you as you navigate the unwritten rules of the office or a difficult situation at work, to name a few. Sponsors focus on advocacy and ensuring that you have the needed visibility to take on that special strategic project or ultimately get promoted to the next level in your career. 

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