The concept of a mentor has been around for ages. But, a related word that isn’t as popular or understood is "sponsor." In a nutshell, sponsors are influential members of your organization who can supercharge your career by opening doors and being your champions.
Mentors are experts who can advise you on your goals and next career steps. They can also act as sounding boards to help you think through your problems. But, they aren’t necessarily committing to be your sponsors. And in most cases, they won’t have the influence to be one.
How to get a sponsor
As you’ll quickly find out, mentors can be found, but sponsors are earned. Of course, finding the right mentors takes work, but landing a sponsor is a different ball game altogether. A sponsor will put their personal reputation on the line to open doors for you, and hence you need to prove upfront that you're worthy of their sponsorship.
Here are some effective ways to start earning yours:
1. Join the right networks.
In corporate environments, you’d target someone with a senior title who wants to open doors for you. When you’re in less traditional environments, you have to be creative and more strategic.
Be very thoughtful about the networks you join; target those you can access that have senior-level members.
Here are some ideas for where to start:
- Look into Employee Resource Groups.
- Strive to be a member of the high-potential group.
- Try to reach “President’s Club” status if you’re in sales.
- Research groups at your company that are open to you and find out if they have senior-level members involved (e.g., Volunteer Group, Diversity & Inclusion Committee).
You could also make the right connections by joining the board of a nonprofit related to your industry. Here are some websites that can help with your search:
- LinkedIn.com (great for researching particular people, their affiliations, and open board positions)
- TheboardMatch.net (matchmaking for nonprofit boards and potential members)
- Boardnetusa.org (search engine for nonprofit board positions)
- Bridgespan.org (they have a nonprofit jobs board, which includes board positions)
- Idealist.org (listings for various types of positions, including for nonprofit boards)
2. Make a great impression.
They need to feel comfortable and confident going to bat for you - for a promotion, job, or opportunity. So, here are some tips for putting your best foot forward.
- When you show up at events or meetings, ask intelligent questions.
- Go the extra mile by volunteering to take on special projects to stretch yourself.
- If you meet with someone who’s a potential sponsor, respect their time and prepare good questions.
3. Start with a specific ask, just like with mentors.
Identify someone with the right influence and networks to help you. Then, reach out by saying "I admire you for X. Would you be open to getting coffee and sharing your thoughts on Y?"
Also, your mentors can help you identify potential sponsors, and can help you build good relationships with them.
4. Remember that sponsors are gatekeepers, not confidantes.
Always try to put your best foot forward with potential sponsors. They’re not there to be your friends or sounding boards. They can be gatekeepers for your next promotion, job, or project, and will evaluate your competency and reliability.
Be strategic and thoughtful about what you share with them.
- While it's important to be open and vulnerable with your sponsors, to allow them to help you evolve as a leader, it’s also important to be cognizant of how you want them to perceive you, and what you want them to help you with.
Here are some good questions to ask yourself while preparing for meetings with current or potential sponsors:
- What do you want them to think of you after the meeting?
- What do you want them to do for you after the meeting?
Remember that sponsors are those in positions of power who can help accelerate your career.
- Honestly, you don’t even have to admire or even particularly like them for them to be good sponsors.
5. Give before you get.
The people who make good sponsors are some of the busiest people and are surrounded by high potential candidates to sponsor. So, why should they sponsor you? Make the choice easy for them, by making it an obvious win-win. It’s hard to say no to those, right?
The more value you show, the better you can cultivate a sponsorship relationship. How can you leverage your skills?
For example, you could use your expertise to help another team and use that opportunity to build a rapport with one of their senior leaders.
- If Lola’s a UX/UI expert and helps another department with their website, she could leverage that opportunity to start building relationships with potential sponsors on that team.