Since our school days, we’ve been steered towards mentors who help us grow our ambitions, achieve our goals, and advance as professionals. But career sponsors could be even more important when it comes to the concrete measure that signifies advancement: stretch assignments, promotions, and raises. Having a sponsor, a career champion, can be a game-changer, especially for minority professionals.
For as vital as sponsors are when it comes to career advancement, it seems like we hear less about them than we do about mentors. Can anybody have a career sponsor, or is this just for specific jobs? Here’s what you need to know.
A professional symbiosis.
Most of us have either had a mentor or served as one. Mentors are advisors. They help mentees shape their ambitions and plans. Mentors are qualified to serve in this capacity because they are experienced experts. They have relevant professional experience to offer. Mentors don’t have to work at the same company or even in the same industry as those they mentor. They are sages, coaches, and counselors. We need them, but we need them differently than we need career sponsors.
Sponsors are senior colleagues. When they notice a junior co-worker’s talent, they take a special interest in developing and advancing that protégés’ career. Sponsors use their connections to help their protégés succeed, advocating for their protégés and helping them to earn raises and promotions. Advancing a talented, emerging professional helps sponsors too. It grows their reputation and leadership skills while advancing the protégé’s career ambitions. It’s a symbiotic relationship rooted in action that furthers both sides’ reputations and aspirations.
The value sponsorships add.
Career sponsorships are an important part of advancement. Payscale’s Teresa Perez points out that nearly 57 percent of employees have career sponsors. Employees who have sponsors tend to be better paid. Perez refers to this as “the Sponsorship Premium,” noting that professionals with sponsors earn nearly 12 percent more than their unsponsored peers.
Professionals who hold higher positions tend to benefit from more internal advocacy. Perez explains: “When we look at the data by job level, those higher up the corporate ladder tend to have higher rates of sponsorship. Fifty-five percent of individual contributors (i.e., those who do not manage others) say they have a sponsor. Each step up the organizational ladder sees an increase in sponsorship: 59.2 percent of managers, 63.1 percent of directors, and 65.5 percent of executives say they have a workplace sponsor.”
In addition to increased compensation, other perks like stretch assignments are some benefits that can come from being sponsored by a senior colleague. George Santos, Director of Talent Delivery and Head of Marketing at 180 Engineering, explains the impact a sponsor’s endorsement can have: “Since they themselves are usually respected members of the company or notable industry figures, their willingness to recommend you goes a long way. They can also help you get access to training that will help advance your career.”
Does my company have sponsorship opportunities?
Santos points out that sponsorships tend to be associated with senior roles at larger companies. However, a personal endorsement is a powerful mechanism for advancing smaller operations, too, though, perhaps, in less formal ways. Santos explains: “candidates sometimes have career sponsors without even realizing it. Personally, I've spoken to many employees who ended up landing a promotion thanks to a recommendation from a senior colleague who they may not have even been aware was fighting for them. That being said, career sponsors do play a significant role in how many contemporary businesses decide who to promote.”
Likewise, Santos points out that large companies are not the only ones using internal employee assessments to make promotion and advancement decisions: “Small and medium-sized enterprises are also frequently home to similar dynamics wherein sponsors advocate for their replacement or convince executives to invest in an employee's training. Even self-employed workers can land clients and get access to funding thanks to career sponsors who give credibility to their work.”
Santos points out that more industries, too, are inviting sponsorship opportunities: “Increasingly, we see the concept of career sponsorship extend beyond the business and tech world and into a plurality of other industries such as education, politics, media, and many other jobs as well.”
Creating quality opportunities for diverse professionals.
In their upcoming book, The Business of Race, authors Margaret H. Greenberg and Gina Greenlee explain: “Sponsorships are one of many practical approaches to advance a company’s diversity goals in a systemized way. How? Executive teams at most large companies conduct a Talent Review Meeting at least annually. This is an opportunity for executives to identify professionals from under-represented groups, such as women and people of color, who can grow with the company. Then they are paired with an executive sponsor.”
Creating this system and facilitating these relationships can have key bi-products for companies. It can help them address and reduce racial and gender pay gaps. It can also help a company create a leadership pipeline among diverse team members. Finally, it stands to bolster retention by creating a sense of belonging among diverse staff members.
In a recent interview with Harvard Business Review, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, economist and founder of Coqual emphasizes that it’s important for senior professionals to maintain a diverse portfolio of protégés. Hewlett explains: “So it’s about identifying. It’s about including. . . difference matters, and it’s precious.”
Santos points out that sponsorship is a way for leaders to engage mindful minority professionals. He explains: “Unfortunately, minority job candidates are often still disadvantaged in comparison to their peers, as they are often not given their due access to promotions and training opportunities. Career sponsors help rectify this imbalance by calling attention to candidates who deserve to be recognized for their knowledge, hard work, and talent. They can help minority job candidates avoid being overlooked due to ignorance and prejudice, and promote a workforce where diversity is better represented in senior positions.”
How to find a sponsor.
A sponsorship relationship is built over time. It’s built on confidence and trust. Santos explains: “There is a lot at stake when it comes to promoting someone to a senior position. As a result, managers and business owners are often cautious about doing so. Career sponsors are people who leverage their own reputation by vouching for your strengths and recommending you as a candidate for career opportunities and promotions. They are important because they advocate for you on your behalf and help mitigate any potential concerns management might have about hiring or promoting you.”
While mentorships are ubiquitous, sponsorship relationships tend to happen by invitation and can therefore be more subtle to pursue. Many companies have mentoring programs that are easy to find and target. Finding a relationship with a sponsor, however, can require a different approach.
Hewlett explains that sponsorships “often happens fairly organically because the younger person has to display a great deal of value. And oftentimes, the senior person is looking for a value add, you know, a skill or an experience in the younger person that they don’t have themselves, that allows the older person to expand their own scope and span. So it’s very reciprocal. There’s some risk in it. And it’s really about progression for both of the individuals.”
It can be challenging to engineer an organic relationship. Your colleagues stand to be willing to sponsor you if they have confidence in your skills and abilities. Santos explains: “Career sponsorship is tricky because it is not something you can go out and find. The process has to start with your own performance. You need to build your list of achievements and talents so that people are willing to put their own reputations on the line to fight for you behind closed doors. Unless you already have a pre-existing relationship with senior figures at a company, career sponsors have to notice you.”
Other than doing stellar work, Santos recommends taking these steps: “What you can do, however, is increase your chances of being noticed through your work and achievements, as well as by promoting your visibility by taking any opportunities that will allow you to showcase the factors that make you a unique and talented individual. By being transparent in your career goals, you can further your chances of being noticed as well. Finally, you can target your efforts at likely career sponsors by making an effort to recognize senior figures at a company that seems to have a lot of social capital. From there, you should make an effort to form relationships with them based on shared interests and your passion for the job.”
Greenberg and Greenlee add: “For professionals seeking a career sponsor, start by identifying a mentor. He or she may know more about the sponsorship process at your company. They may also be able to broker a relationship with a potential sponsor. Bottom line? Prove your value first by meeting or exceeding job expectations and then be proactive and make your career aspirations known.”