chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.

After the Bar

Professional Development

Earning a Sponsor Can Pave the Way to Career Success

Sheila T Murphy

Earning a Sponsor Can Pave the Way to Career Success Seisa

Jump to:

Studies show that people with sponsors achieve more significant and faster success than those without them. Why is this? Sponsors invest in their protégés’ success and use their personal capital to advance their careers. Sponsorship is a tremendous competitive advantage that protégés must earn.

Remember, sponsorship alone does not guarantee success. You still need to have excellent skills, as well as a robust professional profile and network.

What Is Sponsorship?

Sponsorship is using personal influence to advocate for another person’s career development and advancement strongly. Usually, the protégé is a level or two more junior than the sponsor. It occurs at all levels.

For example, a person can recommend you for a client presentation, a new position, or to lead a matter. All of these can impact your career and development to varying degrees.

A Sponsor:

  • Uses influence to produce positive career results or opportunities.
  • Takes on a more intensive and high-stakes form of mentoring.
  • Publicly endorses protégés, takes risks on their behalf, and advocates for opportunities, promotions, or higher compensation.
  • Provides visibility and exposure for protégés. May call in favors or use influence for them.
  • Puts credibility on the line to advocate for protégés

A Sponsor usually engages in some of the following behaviors:

  • Alerts protégé to and recommends them for critical opportunities
  • Publicly endorses and take risks on protégé’s behalf, often without their knowledge
  • Creates the case for career opportunities and advancement
  • Expands perceptions of protégé’s skills and trajectory
  • Provides visibility and exposure
  • Gives protégé “air cover” to take risks

Sponsorship is not:

  • Favoritism
  • An entitlement
  • A promise of promotion
  • Unearned opportunities
  • An unbreakable relationship

Often people confuse sponsorship with mentoring and coaching. And while there may be some overlap, you should understand the differences.

How Does Sponsorship Differ from Mentoring?

  • Mentoring revolves around advice and support.
  • A mentor helps the individual with professional development and advancement but does not necessarily advocate for them or use their political capital on their behalf.

How Does Sponsorship Differ from Coaching?

  • Coaching primarily deals with performance.
  • Coaching helps the individual become more productive and effective at a set of functions, tasks, or practices.
  • Like a mentor, a coach is not going to advocate for you outside of the relationship.

Why Do You Want to Be a Protégé?

Mentoring and coaching are critical to your career development, but through sponsorship, you can earn the following advantages:

  • More opportunities
  • Enhanced professional brand and network
  • Unvarnished advice and truth

Protégés are not lucky. They have earned their sponsorships.

Sponsorship Is Not a Free Ride

Earning your sponsorship means embracing it with an open heart, working extremely hard, and focusing on pleasing your sponsor.

What Are Sponsors Looking for in a Protégé?

Sponsors select individuals as protégés that exhibit specific behaviors. Not many people exhibit these behaviors, which is why sponsorships are difficult to obtain.

Sponsors look for protégés that:

  • Embody leadership attributes and values
  • Excel and have high potential and desire to advance (understand and are willing to do the hard work necessary to succeed)
  • Understand and influence others, including those more senior
  • Demonstrate business maturity and organizational savvy
  • Eager to impact the business in more impactful ways
  • Act beyond current role and innovate
  • Always give more than asked for and deliver two steps ahead
  • Fix problems or take on unpopular projects
  • Appreciate their professional brand and adds value
  • Demonstrate skills at least two levels up
  • Show innovation, high learning agility, and adaptability
  • Display an incredible work ethic

Not everyone has earned a chance to be sponsored. If you haven’t, take the following steps:

  • Solicit honest feedback to find out why you haven’t
  • Be open to what you will hear
  • Take actions to become more attractive to potential sponsors

The reasons can be lack of interactions with potential sponsors, an unknown or weak professional reputation, or insufficient work commitment. After hearing the feedback, create a plan to address it. A mentor can help with this.

How Do You Cultivate a Potential Sponsorship Relationship?

If your feedback indicates that you are acting like someone who should be a protégé, but no one is sponsoring you, you can increase your chances of by selected if you:

  • Build on a mentoring relationship.
  • Increase your visibility by leading a committee, taking on a stretch project, or working on an unpopular matter.
  • Identify higher-ups who either inspire you or have the network to advance you and work on enhancing your relationship with them and make sure they know you, your goals, and your successes (without being too political).
  • Smartly cultivate potential sponsors and learn to “toot” your horns appropriately.
  • Have a potential sponsor see you in action.

If you have a sponsor, earn it every day. Don’t take steps that will cause the sponsor to doubt the relationship.

Ideally, you want to cultivate several sponsors depending on your organization’s size because a sponsor can leave. Having more than one can lessen the impact of a sponsor going. Additionally, having external sponsors can open doors outside of your organization.

Sponsorship can have an extremely positive impact on your career. To earn and maintain one takes investing time and energy devoted to skill and relationship building. It also means being there for your sponsor. It is an effort that many believe is worth it.