Below are ten important recommendations for women (or anyone) seeking to identify and build relationships with potential sponsors. Research shows that having a sponsor increases both career satisfaction and retention; sponsorship is especially important for employees when they are a minority in a majority-group environment.
- Be clear about the differences between mentors and sponsors.
- Identify potential sponsors who have seniority, visibility, and power.
- Look for leaders who are already advocating for other underrepresented employees.
- Look for potential sponsors who are knowledgeable about and participate in efforts to create diverse and inclusive workplaces.
- While some companies have formal programs, recognize that the sponsor relationship often develops organically.
- Keep in mind that senior leaders can act as sponsors without formally taking on that label.
- Generally, the sponsor is the one to initiate advocacy efforts, but at times it can be appropriate to ask if he or she would be willing to recommend you for a specific opportunity.
- Before asking a potential sponsor to advocate for you, carefully assess your relationship to determine if such a request is warranted.
- Focus on creating a network of sponsors inside and outside of your organizations.
- Remain open to new sponsors as your needs and career evolve.
Mentors advise and offer inspiration, coaching, and support. Sponsors advocate and use their influence or power in the organization to advance a protégé’s status, opportunities, and career trajectory.
Choosing a sponsor only because you admire them or feel at ease with their approach is not always the best strategy. Sponsors must be in positions of power and influence if they are to gain positive attention for their protégés from top-level executives. Seek sponsors two or more levels above you.
Even though they may not officially call it “sponsorship,” many leaders are already successfully advocating for women or other underrepresented groups. Try to find leaders who have a successful record and good reputation for engaging in this kind of advocacy.
Research shows those who already value diversity and understand the ways it benefits the organization are more likely to support and advocate for underrepresented employees. They also may be better equipped to identify and help you navigate unconscious biases in the workplace.
Put yourself in situations where you can demonstrate a willingness to go above and beyond, as this will increase a potential sponsor’s confidence in taking a risk or spending their “social capital” when promoting your work. Also remember that gaining a sponsor’s trust in your abilities can take time.
Sponsorship is a relatively new term that may be too formal or unfamiliar to use in your workplace. Talk with others in the organization to determine the preferred language (e.g., advocate).
Doing so is usually better than initiating a more extensive discussion about “being a sponsor,” especially in companies without formal programs or that are less familiar with this term.
You might also talk with colleagues about how they developed a sponsor or advocacy relationship. Another option is to seek out someone you trust who knows the potential sponsor and can help recommend you to them.
Look for people with influence in the field or in areas of expertise that you would like to refine. Doing so affords you multiple options for career building.
This may include recognizing the need for new or different sponsors as you advance, encounter different assignments, and/or shift career goals or trajectories. This also may mean becoming a sponsor yourself. Sponsoring others can help you understand what the relationship is like from the sponsor’s end, ultimately making you a better protégé.
Additional Resources & References
- NCWIT Tips: 8 Ways to Identify Male Advocates available at https://ncwit.org/resource/identifymaleadvocates/
- NCWIT Tips: 8 Ways to Increase Male Advocacy available at https://ncwit.org/resource/increasemaleadvocates/
- Male Advocates and Allies: Promoting Gender Diversity in Technology Workplaces available at https://ncwit.org/resource/maleadvocateindustry/
- Hewlett, S.A. & Sherbin, L. with F. Dieudonné, C. Fargnoli, & C. Fredman. (2014). Athena Factor 2.0: Accelerating Female Talent in Science, Engineering & Technology. New York, NY: Center for Talent Innovation.