The Value of Sponsorship

Much can be said for the benefits of cultivating strong and supportive mentoring relationships. In recent years, mentoring has had to share the spotlight with another form of professional relationship: sponsorship.

Admittedly, at the outset of my legal career, I was unaware of the distinction between a more traditional mentoring relationship and sponsorship. While I have had a number of fantastic mentors over the course of my career, I also have benefited immensely from sponsorship, which has opened the door for some of my most rewarding professional experiences.

So what exactly is sponsorship and how does it differ from a mentoring relationship? And why is sponsorship so important?

These issues are explored in depth in Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s book, (Forget a Mentor) Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career (HBR Press, 2013). While Hewlett, an economist and scholar, believes in the value of mentoring relationships, she argues that it is through sponsorship that professionals can fast track their development and achieve career success.

Mentoring is essentially a passive or one-way relationship, according to Hewlett, in which the mentor provides a sounding board and helps build the self-esteem of the mentee. Mentors listen to issues, help mentees problem solve, and offer guidance and advice. Mentors may also provide performance feedback and facilitate introductions – and, overall, act as role models.

Sponsorship is more of a “two-way street.” Hewlett explains that sponsorship is a reciprocal relationship in which a junior professional prove himself or herself through excellent work and reliability, and the senior sponsor, in turn, advocates for work opportunities that will help the sponsor’s protégé build experience, skills and practices. Sponsors also provide promotion opportunities and enhance their protégé’s visibility and access to others who can help with career progression. This is not to suggest that sponsors make things easy for their protégés as sponsors encourage their protégés to take risks by taking on challenging assignments.

It’s important for most professionals to have more than one sponsor, says Hewlett, who proposes a “2 + 1” rule. That means: two sponsors within your organization and at least one sponsor outside your organization. The outside sponsor could be a client or another stakeholder who takes interest in your career and recommends you to others. Hewlett’s advice in this regard highlights the importance of maintaining both an internal and external profile when seeking career advancement. While it may seem more natural to develop key relationships with more senior colleagues within one’s organization, the relationships developed outside the organization may have a profound impact on personal development and on career advancement more generally. For example, for junior attorneys, an active bar association membership or a close client relationship provide numerous opportunities for personal and professional advancement.

Hewlett notes that junior professionals should not “ask” for sponsorship; instead, they should cultivate these relationships by showing potential sponsors what he or she brings to the table. This seems to be practical advice for developing any meaningful professional relationship, whether a traditional mentor/mentee relationship (as Hewlett views it) or a more active sponsorship. In choosing sponsors, she suggests that professionals should not focus on who they “like” or whose leadership style they most admire. However, Hewlett believes it is important that potential sponsors maintain a position of influence and have a voice in decisions made within the relevant firm or organization.

It’s never too early to cultivate sponsor relationships. Sometimes mentoring relationships can evolve into sponsorship, but if not, Hewlett recommends proactivity. Hewlett offers a seven-step roadmap for junior professionals, which is briefly summarized below using Hewlett’s chapter titles:

  1. “Embrace your dream and do a diagnostic.” First, be deliberate about your goals. Next, plan how to achieve these goals, by assessing your skills and accomplishments and how those capabilities fit within your firm’s structure, and anticipating when you will need support and opportunities along the way.
  2. “Scan the horizon for potential sponsors.” Identify potential sponsors by seeking leaders who are aware of your skills, can benefit from your skills and have power within your firm; consider whether any senior professionals have already advocated for you behind the scenes. Then prove your worth, rather than asking for sponsorship.
  3. “Distribute your risk.” Cultivate two independent sponsors within your firm and one external to your firm but within your field. To attract potential sponsors, increase your visibility both inside your firm (assuming firm leadership roles such as volunteering for mentoring programs or taking a leading role in an affinity group or other employee network) and outside your firm (for example, by joining a non-profit board or a philanthropic cause).
  4. “Understand that it’s not all about you.” Once a sponsorship relationship is established, continue to “deliver standout performance” reliably for both the sponsor and the firm. Remember that your sponsor has staked his orher reputation in part on your performance.
  5. “Come through on two obvious fronts.” Deliver through your work product, by meeting deadlines and by exceeding expectations, and prove your loyalty to your sponsor.
  6. “Develop and deploy your currency.” Identify and apply your personal brand so that your dedication and hard work help you achieve your ultimate goals.
  7. “Lean in and lead with a yes.” When one of your sponsors approaches you with a special assignment or additional responsibilities, say yes. Save your reservations and qualifications for a later discussion when you are in a position to negotiate.