Turn Your Mentors into Sponsors

iStock_000010106679XSmallBy Ida Abbott

Sylvia Hewlett’s pioneering research has shown the importance of sponsorship for women who want to get ahead in their careers. Though the title of her new book is “(Forget a Mentor) Find a Sponsor”, I believe both sponsorship and mentoring are crucial. Mentors serve important career functions and many mentors evolve into sponsors. The key is to be shrewd about finding mentors who can best move your career in the right direction and then get them to champion your success.

While there are important distinctions between mentors and sponsors, both concentrate on helping you achieve career success. Today, mentors are seen primarily as advisors and counselors who foster your learning and professional development, but do not necessarily go out of their way to advocate for you or push for your promotion. In contrast, sponsorship is predicated on power and focuses on career advancement. A sponsor treats you as a protégée, actively grooms you for promotions and leadership roles, and has the power and influence to make their advocacy produce positive career results for you.

Sponsors become more important as your career progresses, especially as you move closer to the top where the competition for partnership, leadership, and resources is greater and the stakes become higher. That’s when you need someone to speak up for you and persuade decision-makers that you deserve a promotion to partner, a higher bonus, or a seat on the executive committee. For someone to do this, however, they must believe that you are worth the risk they are taking in standing up for you. They must know you well enough to trust that you will live up to your promise and their expectations.

This level of knowledge, confidence, and trust takes time to grow. When you already have a mentoring relationship with someone, the foundation for sponsorship is present. But you need to carefully identify the mentors who could become sponsors and then move the relationship in that direction.

When assessing a mentor’s potential to become a sponsor, look beyond the good advice, emotional support, and feeling of comfort they offer you. Many women gravitate to mentors, frequently other women, whom they see as understanding and supportive. But sponsorship is about the power to help you move up, not about friendship or role models. In most organizations and professional firms, the vast majority of power brokers are men. If these men are able and willing to help you achieve your career goals, they may be your best sponsors even if their personalities and lifestyles do not appeal to you.

If a mentor you like has the clout to help you ascend, that’s great. If she or he has little power now but is a rising star and will likely be influential before long, that’s good too. But if this mentor is in a support role, not politically savvy or not respected as a leader in the firm, find someone else – not to replace the mentor you like, but to augment that mentor’s help and provide the kind of powerful sponsorship you need. Do it sooner, not later, so that your relationship has time to form.

Having a good mentoring relationship will give you distinct advantages for eventual sponsorship. Because the mentor knows and presumably respects you, they are likely to judge and treat you fairly. Also, over the course of your relationship, you will be able to demonstrate the attributes that sponsors look for in the people they sponsor. Those attributes are: exceptional performance, high potential, loyalty and unique value.

Exceptional performance means you must show that you can produce consistently outstanding results.

High potential means sponsors invest their time, effort, and political capital to help someone move up in the organization or the profession, so they necessarily focus on the future. They look for high performers with the ability, drive, and resilience to reach the top.

Loyalty means just as you want to know the sponsor has your back, the sponsor must believe you will stand by them and be worthy of the effort and risks they may take on your behalf.

Unique value means that in order for someone to sponsor you, you need to stand out from the crowd of smart, high-performing colleagues in your firm. A sponsor must see distinctive value in what you bring to the table.

In a longstanding mentoring relationship, your mentor may be well aware of your career aspirations and your commitment to them, their practice, and the firm. But do not assume this is the case. They may unconsciously think about you in ways that will impede your upward mobility:

When you consistently do great work, they may rely on you to the point of taking you for granted. Your performance, no matter how brilliant, may not register with them as anything extraordinary. Alternatively, if they depend on you to service their practice or clients, they may want to keep you where you are.

Your mentor may assume you will one day have children, lose your focus and commitment to work, and cut back or leave work altogether. If they have doubts about your long-term career focus and commitment, they are likely to look for another candidate to sponsor.

Unconscious bias may lead them to believe that as a woman, you have less career ambition and drive than men. They may praise your ability but champion someone else – usually a man – for the promotion, client engagement, or leadership position you want.

To turn a mentor into a sponsor, you need to call the mentor’s attention to your achievements and your successes. If you get married or become pregnant, you need to let them know your plans are to remain on track for partnership or leadership. Most importantly, you need to tell him about your career goals and aspirations. Let them know you want to move to the top and would welcome their sponsorship to help you get there.

Remember your mentors, don’t forget them, and when you need a sponsor, look to them first.

Ida Abbott’s new book, Sponsoring Women: What Men Need to Know, explains the importance and dynamics of opposite-sex sponsorship, setting out concrete steps and approaches to help men help women.