Excerpts

'Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor': Getting the right person in your corner

Nov. 27, 2013 at 12:39 PM ET

Video: Cosmopolitan Magazine’s editor-in-chief Joanna Coles and author Sylvia Ann Hewlett give smart advice on how to get ahead in life with a little help from your friends and colleagues.

In "Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor," Sylvia Ann Hewlett clarifies the distinction between those who can offer encouragement and those who can provide the meaningful support and advocacy to put you on the vocational fast track. Here's an excerpt.

'Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor'
Harvard Business Review

Marina, an assistant finance manager at Lloyds Banking Group of London, feels pretty well supported at work.2 She received a warm welcome when she returned from maternity leave last year. She was given the part-time schedule she’d requested—an unusual accommodation for anyone in the risk assurance department—and was assigned to a line man­ager she both liked and knew would look out for her.

While grateful for these developments, Marina wasn’t terribly surprised. She believed that it was all about perfor­mance, and she’d consistently delivered over her ten years at the bank. “It stands to reason,” she told me, “that the higher-ups appreciate my track record. When you have worked for a company as long as I have, your results speak for themselves,” she explained. “Once someone has seen your good work it’s hard for someone to say, ‘Oh she’s rubbish, she’s got to go,’ because people won’t believe it. People who know my skills and level of commitment will support me and make sure I’m rewarded.”

But it doesn’t seem to be working out that way. Now that she’s working a full-time schedule again, Marina is frustrated that those same people haven’t done more to fast-track her career. One of them, “a super-duper female executive” she met through the women’s network at the bank, struck her as someone who might be a champion. “She’s absolutely my role model because she also has young children and knows a thing or two about how a woman can make it big in a male-dominated environment,” Marina enthused. But their rela­tionship has remained casual—and remote. “I thought of asking her to sponsor me,” said Marina wistfully, “but I had second thoughts. She’s my boss’s boss and there might be some conflict of interest.”

For now Marina is pinning her hopes on her long-time mentor—a senior person who has given her wise counsel over the years. He makes a point of complimenting her on her contributions, so she’s fairly sure that he has sent some work her way. “No one has said that directly, but I have a feeling that’s the case,” Marina said. “He did say to me once, ‘You’re one of those people who’s good at fixing things. You’re Mrs. Fixit.’”

Marina told me that she thinks in time her mentor will come through. Having recognized her good work, he will eventually reward it. “I’m definitely on his radar” she says, citing a conversation where he seemed pleased to learn she was working on a mission-critical project.” “I haven’t gotten a promotion out of him yet, but I’m confident he sees my potential.” Marina is still waiting for that promotion.

Why do so many women, like Marina, and people of color stall out short of the leader­ship positions they have the potential to fill? After two years of exhaustive inquiry, I can tell you why: high-potential women and people of color have mentors but lack sponsors. They fail to cultivate strategic alliances with individuals capable of propelling them into leadership positions and protecting them from other contenders. Often, like Marina, they have would-be advocates, senior-level leaders who’ve taken note of their capabilities. But they don’t know how to turbocharge these relationships. They don’t understand the quid pro quo, the mutual investment that ensures both parties remain incentivized to help each other over the long run. So, like Marina, they put their heads down, work harder, and wait, hoping that their mentors and role models will see to their success.

This mistake is all too common and one that women and professionals of color are particularly prone to making. I myself have made it. But as my own career path demon­strates, it’s never too late to seize hold of your dreams, win sponsors, and pull yourself out of a career stall. If you’re on a slow road to nowhere, consider changing your strategy. Forget a mentor. Find a sponsor.

Mentorship versus Sponsorship

Don’t get me wrong: mentors matter. You absolutely need them. But they’re not your ticket to the top. Mentors give, whereas sponsors invest.

Let me clarify.

Mentors are those people who take an interest in counseling you because they like you, or because you remind them of themselves. Mentors will listen sym­pathetically to just about anything you care to bring up. Indeed, the whole idea of having a mentor is to dis­cuss what you cannot or dare not bring up with your boss or colleagues. Your mentor will listen to your issues, offer advice, and review which problem-solving approaches to take and which to discard. Mentors give generously of their time. In return, you listen and try to heed their advice. It may be that they enjoy drawing on their experience and sharing their wisdom, or they’re pay­ing back their own early supporters, or they’re paying the debt forward. In any case, it’s an asymmetric relationship. The energy is flowing one way: toward you.

A sponsor is also someone who takes an interest in you and your career, but not out of altruism or like-mindedness. A sponsor sees furthering your career as an important investment in his or her own career, orga­nization, or vision. Sponsors may advise or steer you, but their chief role is to develop you as a leader. Your role is to earn their investment in you. Indeed, throughout the relationship, you’re delivering outstanding results, build­ing their brand or legacy, and generally making them look good. You’re driving the relationship, making sure that whatever dividends you realize in the way of promotions, pay raises, or plum assignments are manifestly dividends that you earned. Sponsorship, done right, is transactional. It’s an implicit or even explicit strategic alliance, a long-range quid pro quo. But provided you’re giving as good as you’re getting, there’s nothing about this dynamic that warrants distaste. Sponsorship isn’t favoritism or politics; it doesn’t rig the game. On the contrary, it ensures you get what you’ve worked for and deserve.

This is not to belittle the role that supporters, by which I mean both mentors and role models, play in your career. Role models serve as vital inspiration, boosting your drive and giving form to your ambition. Mentors, who are often role models, can offer empathetic support, help you figure out what you want, and determine with you what steps will get you there. But neither mentors nor role models can give you real career traction.

I wrote this book to make sure you don’t make Marina’s mistake: to show you why you need sponsors to help you achieve your vision, whether that’s a leading role in a larger company, a strategic role in a small company, or founding a business of your own.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast Track Your Career by Sylvia Ann Hewlett. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved. 

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