How to Find a Sponsor
Seven Ways to Cultivate a Transformative Relationship
A sponsor can be transformative to your career. When I say “sponsor,” I’m talking about someone who opens doors for you, pushes you to take on stretch assignments, and provides you with opportunities you didn't know existed. I've previously written a lot about mentors and sponsors, and the differences between the two. Put simply, mentors give you advice for achieving success, but sponsors create a path for you to get there.
I have had several sponsors over my career. Each of them was like rocket fuel for my advancement. They took chances on me, sometimes before I was ready, and definitely more than I deserved. One gave me the opportunity to run the largest product at PayPal when I was just a few years out of school. Another found me a more challenging and larger-scope job when I was ready to leave the tech industry. One set me up to take his job, and later his manager's job. Yet another introduced me to the CEO of Intuit with an eye for having me join their board.
Without the support and advocacy of these sponsors, I would not have gotten to where I am today. Part of the work I want to do is to pay that forward. I have sponsored several dozen people since, and I have had the pleasure of seeing their careers evolve. In today’s post, I will provide a list of ways you can find someone to sponsor you in your own career.
1. Turn your manager into your sponsor
Many of those I have sponsored started out as direct reports. I had a front-row seat to their work accomplishments, and what I saw in them was the potential to grow and do more. While I no longer manage them, my support for them never waivered, and they remain people I hope I can open doors for when the opportunity arises. I have put them up for board positions, advising opportunities, and speaking engagements. Just recently, several have reached out for advice on how to think about internal and external moves, which I have happily given.
Some of these people reported to me over a decade ago. Others were my reports much more recently. But the one thing they all have in common was that the manager relationship was where the sponsorship began.
The dynamic you have with your manager is about more than just your current role; it is about all the future doors they may be able to open for you. Even when you change jobs, stay in touch with your manager if your relationship with them has been a positive one. They might end up being your future sponsor.
2. Turn you skip-level manager into your sponsor
Several of the most important sponsors I've ever had in my career were my skip-level managers. I didn't report to them directly, but their larger purviews and broader mandates meant that they could open different doors than my own manager.
In some organizations, connecting with these potential sponsors can be tricky. Some managers are very protective of their relationships with skip-level managers. That said, you can still build a relationship through touch points if you keep your manager in the loop.
I most often encountered people who didn't report directly to me during product reviews. I shared a couple weeks ago about the top ten mistakes to avoid during product reviews. Asking a skip-level manager point-blank to sponsor you should be number eleven on that list. However, if you play your cards right, a product review can be an opportunity to impress them with your thinking. If you work in an area they care about, it will be easier to engage with them more directly. I have worked with people a couple of levels away whom I sponsored and helped grow, and have continued to long after they left my organization.
3. Turn your mentor your sponsor
Over the years, I have occasionally been assigned someone to mentor as part of a formal company program. In all, I have mentored around a dozen people this way, and I ended up sponsoring a subset of these individuals.
You may be wondering what the difference was between those I chose to sponsor and those I chose not to. A lot of it was driven by my connection to their ambitions and affinity for their goals. A lot of it was also driven by their investment in the mentorship. I had several mentees who I felt didn't listen to what I had to say. On the other hand, the ones who really invested in the relationship were the ones I later sponsored.
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