A successful career can take more than just talent and hard work.
Sometimes, having someone to guide you and provide support can make a significant difference when it comes to getting ahead. This might be a colleague, a former co-worker or a friend who can talk frankly with you and help you perform your best.
These friendships are hugely valuable in the workplace, offering you advice, knowledge and direction when it comes to career decisions. But there are several key ingredients for moving up the ladder that these mentors lack: Influence, capital and the power to directly offer you good opportunities. This is the role of a sponsor.
“A sponsor is a senior person who is willing to use their influence to advocate for you when you’re not in the room,” says Penelope Jones, career coach and founder of My So-Called Career.
“Someone who can put your name forward for high profile projects, promotions and other career opportunities, and/or ensure projects or issues you care about are more widely seen, or your input to them recognised.”
A sponsor plays a more tangible role in the workplace, with the power to push you forward for promotions or pay rises and put you forward for new positions. Sponsorship is less about someone helping you out before they simply like you. Instead, a sponsor is willing to invest in your career, rather than just play the part of a role model.
“A sponsor is willing to stick their own neck out to see you advance and get you a seat at the table, contrasted with a mentor who uses their experience to provide guidance, advice and support,” Jones says.
“Sponsorship is rarely a 100% altruistic act or hidden hand up the ladder - as with so many things, what you put in will affect what you get out,” she adds. “At best, it’s a dynamic relationship which connects senior leaders with talented juniors to mutual, ongoing benefit - a two-way relationship rather than a one way street.”
And although sponsorship is best known for the role it can play when you are both in a single organisation, these relationships can gain you visibility and opportunities to progress across companies and sectors.
Crucially, those who act as sponsors don’t actually need to have a space at the very top table.
While sponsors need to be in a position to influence, anyone can use their power and influence to benefit others. “It’s less about your seniority and more about the influence you have and how you use it,” Jones says.
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So far, so good. But how do you go about getting a sponsor?
Unfortunately, Jones explains, it is not straightforward. “There is little ‘skin in the game’ for most mentors - they are giving their time and insight, both of which have significant value but can be given with little personal risk, hence we see a lot of people putting themselves forward in this way,” she says.
“A sponsor is actively speaking out for you, and with that more overt connection, comes a greater opportunity for reward for you, but also a higher level of perceived risk for them, so you will need to go further to.”
A good approach is to ensure you are doing whatever is in your power to get yourself noticed in a positive light by people in a position to help you.
“If there is a manager, exec or other more senior colleague whose work you respect and who you think could help elevate you, or otherwise amplify your voice, ask yourself what you could do to strengthen the relationship? How could you make it easier for them to help you?” Jones says.
A good starting point is to look for leaders who seem to share your values or value your strengths.
“Ask if they would be up for a career conversation on that basis - a chance to ask for their input into your future,” she adds. “A meaningful career conversation is active, forward looking and action focused - it is not a quick chat snatched in a corridor. Take responsibility for setting it up, following through on any actions, and feeding back any developments.”
If you already have an idea of a direction you’d like to explore, you could ask for their thoughts on how you might develop more relevant skills or experience. Another option is to ask for their input on how you might be able to use your strengths to greater effect within the company.
“By taking this approach, you are showing that you take your growth and development seriously, that you have selected them for a reason and value their input,” Jones says.
“Importantly, you are not asking them to go out on a limb for you without any prior knowledge of you and your work. This softer approach will most likely lead to them feeling comfortable taking action on your behalf in the longer term.”
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