Let me start by stating that I am a huge champion of mentorship. But the truth is that mentorship is only part of a successful leadership strategy — especially in today’s job market where not only do you have to stand out, but someone must also be willing to stand up for you. That is why sponsorship is an integral part of any successful leadership strategy. Unlike mentors, who provide general guidance and direction, sponsors act as spotlights, highlighting oftentimes junior employees for opportunities or recognition within an organization.
Sponsors are such an important part of the equation because you need someone who can champion you when you’re not in the room. According to Deloitte, sponsors model behavior and drive the sponsored individual’s career vision, fully invested in their upward movement. Sponsors provide visibility, even using their platforms to increase exposure and help the sponsored individual build network connections.
Whether you’re seeking an internal promotion, an external award or even a new role at an organization where you’re an unknown quantity, a sponsor can speak up on your behalf and help clear your path to success. That said, here are three guidelines for people who are seeking a sponsor:
- Don’t wait.
Like mentorship relationships, sponsorships take time to grow and thrive. The best sponsorship relationships evolve over the course of months and years because people tend to support those they know. You wouldn’t put your reputation on the line for someone you just met — and you shouldn’t expect a potential sponsor to either. That said, there’s an African proverb that states: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” If you don’t have a sponsor now, get one. Don’t feel like you need to wait until you get that next promotion or achieve that certification; your path up the success ladder will be that much easier with a sponsor to help you out.
- Meet IRL (in real life).
This kind of relationship is best built face to face. Today’s digital world has made it easier than ever to connect with industry experts through email or social media, but how strong is that relationship, really? In a sponsorship, you’re really asking people to go out on a limb for you and they’re not going to do that unless they know you well. The strongest relationships are based on in-person, fully transparent interactions. Even if you don’t work together regularly, your sponsor should be someone you’ve met and are able to interact with in person at least semi-regularly.
- Don’t count out mentors.
So, you’re in an organization and you have a great mentor but no sponsor — don’t get discouraged! Some of the best sponsorship relationships are built from mentorships. When I started in my current role, I built a close relationship with one of our executives. He recognized my skills and gave me solid advice about navigating some of the trickier aspects of our organization. Leveraging his advice, I grew very successful in that role. At that point, it wasn’t a big leap for him to recommend me as someone who’d be a good fit for board positions in our community. Our initial relationship — one of guidance and respect — transitioned into one where he felt comfortable positioning me for opportunities.
So, if you are in a high-performing role, making an impact on key business initiatives and taking on big challenges, consider building rapport with executives who know your impact on the bottom line. One of them is most likely a willing sponsor for your next career move.
Katharine Voyles Mobley is the chief marketing officer of First Advantage.