Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor

Posts, Building Your Product Career, Sponsorship

Everything you need to know about who sponsors are, why they matter for your career advancement, and how to find them.

By: Susan Davis-Ali, Ph.D., Founder and President, Leadhership1®

For the second time in just over two years, I was reading an e-mail about my co-worker Ray’s promotion. Why him and not me? I knew I was as smart as Ray (pretty sure I was smarter), and I knew I worked harder than Ray (which was easy to see since he occupied the cube next to mine). Yet there I was, reading another announcement about his promotion. What did Ray have that I didn’t have? He had the secret sauce for advancement that I knew nothing about. He had a sponsor. 

Fast forward years later, thanks to pivotal research by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, I learned why having a sponsor is so important for career advancement. Across talent cohorts, male managers who win sponsorship are 23% more likely to progress to the next rung of the career ladder than peers who do not have sponsors. (The figure for women is 19%.)  Sponsorship helps explain why some people’s careers seem to be on the fast track while equally talented and hard-working employees do not progress as rapidly.  My mission during the past 15 years as a leadership coach for women in tech is for all women to know what Ray knew. Forget a mentor; find a sponsor.

Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor

Forget a mentor, find a sponsor is the famous phrase written by Sylvia Ann Hewlett in her groundbreaking book with the same title published in 2013.  Did she literally mean for us to forget about mentors?  I doubt it.  Plenty of studies demonstrate the value of mentors.  What Hewlett did want us to understand is the important distinction between mentors and sponsors – a distinction that is still not widely understood by most people a decade later.  In my experience, people often use the words interchangeably or simply use the word mentor to generically mean everyone who is helpful to their career.  Mentors and sponsors both play important roles in career development, but one, not the other, is the key to career advancement.  If advancement is your goal, find a sponsor.

Who can be a mentor, and what do mentors do?

Mentors can be anyone.  They can be older than you, younger than you, they can work at the same organization, or they can be someone you know from outside of work.  They can be someone with whom you have a more friendly relationship, or they can be a more stoic advisor.  You might have intersectional qualities in common with your mentor, or you might not.  A mentoring relationship can be ongoing for years, or it can last for a short period of time focused on a specific situation or issue. Mentors can be part of a formal mentoring program or people with whom you’ve developed an organic relationship.  Anyone with experience to share whose opinion you value can be your mentor. Mentoring can be done one-on-one or one-to-many, which is common in ERGs, peer mentoring circles, or in leadership development programs.

Mentors have the following things in common:

  • Mentors provide advice and guidance, which is often based on their personal experience.  
  • Mentors are sounding boards.  They want to help and support you.
  • Mentors often provide a safe space where you can let your guard down.  They can be a shoulder to cry on during times of frustration and stress.
  • Mentors willingly share their time and experience because they want to pay it forward.  They don’t expect anything directly in return.

Four things that mentors and sponsors have in common:

  1. They give advice.
  2. They provide guidance.
  3. They make introductions that they believe will benefit your career.
  4. They provide you with feedback.

Who can be a sponsor, and what do sponsors do?

Not everyone can be a sponsor. Sponsors must meet certain criteria. A sponsor must be someone within your organization who has power and influence within the areas you aspire to. In other words, a sponsor must have clout among other leaders to negotiate career opportunities on your behalf. A sponsor must be someone senior to you (often a skip-level manager) who intentionally chooses to use their power and influence to directly impact your career advancement. 

 

What sponsors do that mentors do not do?

  • Sponsors use their power and influence to help advance your career.
  • Sponsors are your very vocal advocates when you are not in the room.
  • Sponsors believe in your potential (often before you believe in it yourself) and are willing to stake their own reputation on helping you advance. 

Sponsors influence your career advancement by affecting three key things:

  1. High-profile assignments
  2. Promotions
  3. Pay raises.

Mentors vs. Sponsors

It’s important to discern between enthusiastic cheerleaders (mentors) and actual champions (sponsors).   They can come across as very similar. Cheerleaders can boost our confidence and make us feel good about our work (let’s not dismiss the importance of that), but a cheerleader can’t directly influence your next promotion. Cheerleaders can tell you that you deserve the promotion. Champions (sponsors) can make the promotion happen. Both are valuable, but they are very different. As Hewlett puts it so succinctly, “Mentors advise, sponsors act.”

Can your direct manager be your sponsor? I get asked this question a lot. Yes, a direct manager can be a sponsor if they have the power and clout necessary to influence your career advancement. Do not confuse your manager’s desire to advance your career with their ability to do so. Many well-intentioned managers try to be a sponsor, but they may not have the necessary clout. If your manager is telling you they are advocating for your promotion and it’s not happening, it’s likely that they don’t have the power to be your sponsor. Appreciate your manager’s support but look to your skip-level manager as a possible sponsor.

Can you advance in your career without a sponsor? Yes, however, the data is clear. Across talent cohorts, male managers who win sponsorship are 23% more likely to progress to the next rung of the career ladder than peers who do not have sponsors. The figure for women is 19%.  Sponsors are the springboard to advancement. Why wouldn’t you want to put in the effort to find one?

How to find a sponsor? Sponsorship is earned. I do not recommend asking someone to be your sponsor. If your organization has a formal sponsorship program where they will match you with a sponsor, absolutely take advantage of that opportunity. However, for most employees, sponsorship grows organically out of a mutually beneficial working relationship between a senior person with power and clout and a person with less power and clout whose good work benefits the senior leader.

Steps for identifying potential sponsors:

Step 1:  The easiest place to start looking is with your manager or your skip-level manager.  Do you have a good working relationship with them? Do you feel like they have been an advocate for your career advancement? If yes, they are potential sponsors.

Step 2:  Look around your organization. Who are the leaders you admire? When you make a significant contribution to a project, does the impact of your good work roll up to any of these leaders? Often, a sponsor is someone who has expertise that is very different from your own. Your different area of expertise is how you add value to them. These people are potential sponsors.

Step 3:  Look to your mentors. Do they have the “juice” to be a sponsor? According to Hewlett, the juice is someone who has clout in the circles that you aspire to join or has influence within the community that you want to be a part of. Do not attempt to convert your mentors or role models into sponsors unless they have the juice.

Step 4:  Think about the people in your organization who have successfully fast-tracked their careers. They often make great sponsors because they most likely have a sponsor themselves and understand the relationship’s nature and value.

Once you identify potential sponsors, then what?

Reach out to the people you have identified as potential sponsors and let them know that you respect their opinions and are seeking their advice as part of your professional development.  Ask them a question that you sincerely want to know the answer to. Possible questions include:

  • What leadership qualities do you think are most important for leaders in our organization to possess? How can a person cultivate these qualities if they don’t currently have them?
  • What do you see as my biggest strengths at work, and what do they see as my blind spots that I could work on?
  • What piece of career advice was most instrumental to their own career advancement?

Sit and process the advice they give you. If you do act on their advice, circle back with them, letting them know how it turned out for you. If they indicate that they are willing to keep the conversation going with you, take them up on it. Don’t force a relationship. Don’t ask for regular ongoing time together unless they offer it. Your goal initially is to let them know you are looking to grow as a professional and you value their opinion. Cultivating a sponsorship relationship takes time.

Control what you can control. Be the kind of person someone wants to sponsor.

  • Be an outstanding employee. Exceed expectations.  
  • Know your brand. What differentiates you from your peers? What are your unique strengths in the workplace? To learn more about yourself, I highly recommend taking the StandOut Assessment by Marcus Buckingham. It’s available free online at www.tmbc.com. This assessment is in the spirit of Strengths Finders but is even more useful and actionable in my experience as a leadership coach.
  • Know your own impact. What value do you bring to your organization? I suggest you keep a weekly journal. Every Friday, take 5 minutes and ask yourself, “What was my biggest contribution(s) this week?”  
  • Frame your response in the following format: I did X, and the impact was Y. Your X should be a specific behavior, and Y should be something your organization values. For example, I worked with one of our largest clients to solve a problem they were having with using our new product.  The impact was that the client now knows how to use our product more effectively, which will lead to greater client satisfaction and retention.
  • Share your impact with your manager on a regular basis.  At the end of every month, review the four or more impact statements that you’ve documented every Friday. Share these with your manager and ask them which ones they feel are most significant. This will do two things:  1) It will highlight your impact on your manager, 2) It helps you better understand what the manager perceives as valuable, and 3) It will give you documentation to refer to if you are asked to do an annual self-assessment of your performance.

What do sponsors expect of a protégé (Protégé is Hewlett’s word for the person being sponsored) 

Protégés are expected to:

Be trustworthy and discreet.  

Promote the sponsor’s legacy. 

Bring “value-added,” meaning a different perspective and skill set than the sponsor.

Adds favorably to the sponsor’s brand across the organization.

Should I look for a sponsor that shares my gender identity? The women in the Leadhership1 program ask me this question a lot. I tell them that the goal is to find a sponsor. If that person shares your gender identity, they will more likely be able to see things from your perspective, which can be helpful. If they don’t share your gender identity, they can provide you with a different perspective, which will also be helpful. The statistical reality is that most leaders who are at a level high enough to have power and influence to advance their careers will be men. 

 

Myth busting:  For the longest time, I couldn’t fully comprehend what the research meant when it said sponsorship is a 2-way street (mentoring is described as a 1-way street). It was obvious how my sponsor was helping me, but how was I helping them? How could I possibly help someone far more senior than me in the organization? I always felt a little uncomfortable when my sponsor went to bat for me and helped advocate for my promotions. Was he just being nice? Why was he being nice? If you hold this myth like I did, I want to debunk it for you.

  • Myth:  My sponsor is just being nice to me. There is no direct benefit for them.
  • Debunking the myth: Two big aha moments debunked this myth for me. The first involved a conversation with my mentor, Kevin. After years of Kevin clearly acting as my sponsor, I decided to share with him my puzzlement about why he was helping me. I’ll never forget the confused look on his face. “I’m helping you because you’ve earned my help,” he told me. “A senior leader does not put their own reputation on the line and use their clout to advance someone’s career simply out of kindness. I sponsor you, Susan, because you have earned it. The work you do is not in my area of expertise, and the area of expertise that you have is critical to our company’s success. I can sleep at night because I trust that you are doing your job well.” I share this story with the women that I coach because it’s a very important lesson that I learned. If someone is being your advocate, it’s because you’ve earned it!  
  • The second aha moment for me in finally believing that sponsorship really is a 2-way street came in the form of data from the book The Sponsor Effect by Sylvia Ann Hewlett (2019). According to her research, senior executives who sponsor rising talent are 53% more likely to be promoted themselves than those who don’t sponsor. What? Kevin understood it all along.  There are tangible benefits to being a sponsor. It’s important that we, as women, understand this.  Our sponsors are not doing us a favor. They are not just being nice. Myth busted.

Significant findings regarding race and sponsorship:

Sylvia Ann Hewlett and her colleague Kennedy Ihezie published important data (HBR September 2022) about race and sponsorship. They report that 20% of white employees have sponsors compared to only 5% of black employees. Why? Because Black employees cannot look to senior Black colleagues for sponsorship, and white executives don’t tend to advocate for them either. Black executives are a mere 3% of corporate executives. Partly because of this scarcity, these executives stand out and tend to come under heavy scrutiny.

As a result, they are 26% less likely to commit to being a sponsor than white executives. In the words of a Black leader reported in the article, “I’m comfortable with mentoring, but I don’t have either the ammunition or the armor to get in deep and proactively sponsor.” More than one-third of Black executives say they never sponsor a junior talent who looks like them — and it’s not because they don’t want to. In interviews, they describe their painful quandary: a fervent desire to pay their gains forward and vigorously champion young Black talent clashes with very real risks to their own careers if they go to bat for another Black man or woman.

Findings by Hewlett and Ihezie also show that black employees receive a particularly large boost from sponsorship. The data shows that a Black manager is 65% more likely to progress to the next rung on the ladder if they have a sponsor. The authors conclude with this call to action: Sponsorship is by far the most effective intervention a company can make to advance Black talent. Companies must give urgent priority to well-financed interventions that create access to senior-level advocacy for Black managers and executives.

If you currently have a sponsor, congratulations! Fewer than 1 in 4 women do. If you don’t have a sponsor yet, you are not alone. Sponsorship doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to cultivate sponsorship relationships. Put in the work to be the kind of employee that senior leaders want to sponsor. Be visible within your organization (heads-down strategies are not the way to find a sponsor), and be vocal about your desire for stretch opportunities and professional growth. Pay it forward by educating other women about the importance of finding a sponsor, and if you have the power and influence to be a sponsor, please be one. 

About the author

Susan Davis-Ali, Ph.D. (she/her) Founder and President, Leadhership1®

Susan Davis-Ali, Ph.D.

Susan Davis-Ali, Ph.D. has coached over 2,000 women in tech from all around the world and is proud that she created a leadership development program for women that has had that kind of large-scale impact. It’s the individual emails from the Leadhership1® graduates that mean the most to her. When a woman reaches out after they graduate from the program and tells Susan that they went after their career goals and got the promotion they wanted because of the confidence they gained during the program she created – that’s what she’s most proud of. Susan is obsessed with candy. She considers herself a bit of an expert in non-chocolate, old-fashioned candy. She even created her own interactive version of Candy Land, where you eat candy as part of the game. Everyone is a winner!