Mentoring programs are an important offering that many large companies, professional organizations, and associations are offering to help build the careers of up-and-comers. And while mentors make excellent guides and provide invaluable advice, if you really want to get ahead, you’ll need more than words to get there. What you need is someone who has the power to help you showcase your talent on new projects, presentations, committees and Boards. You need a sponsor.
The Difference Between a Mentor vs. a Sponsor
Mentors and sponsors, while often confused, are far from the same role, says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor. Tons of mentors are out there, but sponsorship is harder to come by—and makes a much more tangible difference in your career. According to research from the Center for Talent Innovation, where Hewlett is founder and CEO, people with sponsors are 23% more likely to move up in their career than those without sponsors.
Before You Approach a Potential Sponsor
Get Yourself Noticed. Pre-visibility is key in finding a great sponsor. You often have to already be somewhat visible in order to get someone to shine even more visibility on you. You know the corporate saying “Nobody ever got fired for hiring a Big 5 consulting firm”? Your sponsor is more likely to recommend you when they’ve heard your name (alongside accomplishments) a few times prior.
Be Great. Your sponsor is putting their reputation on the line if they recommend you for a project or a job. You can put your sponsor at ease by consistently delivering excellent value for the company, many of which equates to bottom-line results for the company. The best way for your sponsor to know this is to find concrete examples and stories that highlight these accomplishments. There’s an adage in writing “show, don’t tell” and it applies more than ever in business. Don’t say you’re an asset to the team, show how you’ve been an asset through concrete projects and deliverables you’ve delivered.
Be Patient. It takes time to build relationships — specifically to build a level of trust. That’s part of our human psychology around familiarity and shouldn’t be overlooked or taken personally that someone didn’t instantly help us. Since you now know this in advance, you can start planting the seeds for building a relationship with several sponsors well before you’re ever looking for a new project or a promotion.
Be Impatient. While you’re taking the time to build a relationship, don’t let yourself get forgotten. Find reasons to email your potential sponsors (an interesting article, info about a professional conference) in order to stay top of mind. It’s not personal but people are busy and constantly inundated with information. The more recently and more regularly they hear from you, the more quickly you’ll pop into their mind when they hear about a great new project. In other words, don’t sit waiting for the phone to ring — it’s your responsibility to pro-actively take the initiative to build the relationship.
The Final, Critical Tip
Many people think about their careers one-sidedly — we ask ourselves, what do I want? Flip that question. What does my sponsor want? Figuring out what you can provide that may be of value to them is the absolute best way to approach a sponsor. If you don’t know, you should do your homework and ask around. If you simply drop a line “What can I help you with?”, you’re actually putting more work on them to figure out what to ask for and it’s easily something they may put aside for later and never get back to. Always offer something concrete because, even if it’s not what they need, they now have an idea of your skillset and your proclivity towards pro-active thinking and problem solving.