Why You Need a Sponsor Not a Mentor!

Could your career use an influential advocate?

When you first begin your career, it’s important to enlist a few great mentors. As your career advances toward mid-level opportunities and beyond, you should enlist a diverse slate of mentors, and seek out an elite category of advocate: a sponsor.

“A sponsor is an influential spokesperson for what you are capable of doing,” says Millette Granville, Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Delhaize Group. There are many ways in which a sponsor can use their voice to boost your career, from putting your name forward for a coveted role to adding the weight of their influence to push your proposals forward to shining a spotlight on your strengths and achievements.

A good sponsor can spot strengths you’re not even aware of because they are underdeveloped. What’s more, a sponsor sees how your strengths can add value in areas of the business you’ve yet to explore. Due to their influence, sponsors can open more career doors than you ever thought possible. And they articulate a vision for your career that is bigger than you could ever imagine.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the right sponsorship can catapult your career to new heights.

Having the support of a sponsor is also like navigating your career wrapped in an extra-thick layer of bubble wrap. Sponsors can protect you during organizational shake-ups—such as an acquisition, re-org, or layoff—mitigating the downside of making bolder, riskier, career moves.

As Kerrie Peraino, Senior Vice President for Human Resources and Chief Talent Officer, American Express, has said: “Having an active advocate completely changes your career.” I’m pretty sure she means change for the better.

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Sponsorship

To truly grasp the impact of sponsorship and the boost it can give your career, here are five facts worth knowing: 

1. There’s a sponsorship gender gap.

Women are less likely than male peers to benefit from sponsorship, according to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Kerrie Peraino, Laura Sherbin, and Karen Sumberg. In the report, “The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling,” the authors describe their discovery that only 13% of women and 19% of men working full-time for large companies have a sponsor. So while the sponsorship gender gap may be smaller than you’d have guessed, it’s still significant, and one of the reasons why men still outnumber women nearly two to one in top leadership positions.

2. Sponsors empower you to make bold moves.

The authors of “The Sponsor Effect” also found that people who have the backing of a powerful sponsor are at least 22% more likely to summon the courage to ask for stretch assignments and raises. Having a sponsor is like having a career safety net, which makes it easier to be bolder, take risks, and ask for what’s important to you. And, as other studies have shown, whether it’s a pay raise, a promotion, or a plum assignment, people who ask for these benefits are much more likely to get them.

3. Sponsors enhance your career satisfaction.

How happy are you, right now, with the pace of your career growth? According to the study’s authors, women and men feel more satisfied with their career advancement when they have sponsors. If you feel like your career has plateaued or that you’re being overlooked for opportunities, a sponsor can help.

4. Sponsors transfer a “halo” of power to protégés.

When reporting on sponsorship research conducted by Hewlett’s organization, The Center for Talent Innovation, Jenna Goudreau, a writer for Business Insider, noted, “Four U.S.-based and global studies clearly show that sponsorship—not mentorship—is how power is transferred in the workplace.” If women are less likely to be sponsored than their male colleagues, then it’s no surprise that it’s more difficult for women to gain influence. Whether your goal is to launch a new product, turn around a struggling team, or attract broader responsibilities, having an influential ally in your corner makes it easier.

5. You’re underestimating the benefits of sponsorship.

Here’s one final nugget from the research referenced in “The Sponsor Effect”: “We found that the majority of ambitious women underestimate the pivotal role sponsorship plays in their advancement—not just within their current firm, but throughout their career and across their industry.”

If you’re an ambitious woman, then it’s likely that you, too, are underestimating the benefits sponsorship can confer on your career.

Here’s a collection of four articles about sponsors and the role they play, how they differ from mentors, why you absolutely need to get one, and where to begin your search.

• Are You Overmentored and Undersponsored?

• Ask an Exec: Can My Mentor Be My Sponsor?

• Sponsors: The People Who Can Open More Career Doors Than You Ever Thought Possible

• 7 Ways to Spot a Potential Sponsor

If it feels like there’s a brick wall standing between you and your next career breakthrough (or if you’d like to act preemptively to avoid future barriers) having a sponsor can make a huge difference. Remember, it’s better to face those obstacles with someone who has your back!

Jo Miller

Jo Miller is a globally renowned authority on women’s leadership. She’s dedicated two decades to helping women advance into positions of influence by leveraging their leadership strengths. Based on her work with hundreds of thousands of women, she developed a pragmatic and powerful roadmap that guides women to become the leaders they aspire to be. Jo shares this proven process in her book Woman of Influence: 9 Steps to Build Your Brand, Establish Your Legacy, and Thrive (McGraw Hill, 2019.)

Jo is CEO of leadership development, consulting and research firm Be Leaderly. Learn more about her speaking engagements at www.JoMiller.com and follow @Jo_Miller on Twitter.

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