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Mentors Support You, but Sponsors Propel You

Last week as I was wrapping up a college workshop I’d facilitated, I shared what’s always a fun discussion – the mistakes I’ve made and lessons they’ve taught me over a couple of decades of work. One that always makes me smile is one of my first boss’s words of wisdom. He told me, “Success is based on three things: Luck, sponsorship and timing.”

At the time I brushed it off. I’d grown up hearing that success was about working hard, not something as uncontrollable as luck or timing. And sponsorship I chalked up as being synonymous with colleagues thinking highly of you. In retrospect I realize how naive I’d been.

Looking back, I can see how luck and timing worked both for me and against me at different times. But sponsorship was something I didn’t fully appreciate. The impact of a true sponsor is invaluable, and is different than those of mentors, which tend to get a lot more press.

There’s lots written about the power of mentors – and mentors are indeed great to have. I’ve mentored more than a hundred people in my career and while I care about their success, I’m not invested in it.

“A Mentor Will Talk With You, But A Sponsor Will Talk About You”

A sponsor, though, is different. As pointed out by Heather Foust-Cummings at Catalyst Research Center for Equity in Business Leadership, “A mentor will talk with you, but a sponsor will talk about you.” In other words, they’re the people who will be advocating for you even when you’re not in the room.

Because of this, sponsoring also means a sponsor is putting her or his reputation on the line – so sponsorship has to be earned. As Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of “Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor” puts it: “A senior person is not going to go out of their way unless you have proven your worth.” While sponsors are key in moving up the corporate ladder, Hewlett adds that “There is no way up in any career where you don’t need sponsorship,” says Hewlett. “At the end of the day, you need a powerful person to open doors for you.” So sponsors are at least as important to entrepreneurs as they are to those working their way up through big companies.

Twenty years after my boss shared his wisdom, I experienced one of the most visible examples of sponsorship I’ve benefited from in my career. My most recent sponsor, Orlando Harris, director of Career Services and Leadership Development at San Francisco State University, was one of our very early Journeous clients and exemplified what great sponsors do. He saw the connection between our solution and its ability to move the needle on key initiatives he and his team were focused on. But he recognized that his customers – SFSU students – wouldn’t get the full benefit if he implemented it in the traditional manner.

Instead of walking away, he engaged faculty partners in coming up with a shared solution. He championed getting our proposal funded and approved internally. He kept in close contact with the faculty and students who were part of Journeous to get their perspective. He proactively shared the early outcomes we were seeing with school leadership, reinforcing early support and generating interest from other faculty members.

Five Ways To Find A Sponsor

As all sponsors do, Orlando took a calculated risk. In the process, we’ve built a mutual respect and appreciation for the other’s work and a true partnership that I think he would agree has benefited us both. Not every sponsor has the vision or the commitment to create meaningful change that Orlando has. But if you want to increase your odds of finding and developing a great sponsor, here are five ways you can do so. While luck has its place, you might not want to rely on it when it comes to developing great sponsors.

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