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A career sponsor is your most important ally at work. Time to act if you don’t have one

If career advancement opportunities seem to evade you even though you have put in a lot of hard work and are good at what you do, it may be time to enlist the help of a sponsor.

Typically someone senior to you in the company, a sponsor provides career guidance (like a mentor does), but will also more importantly deploy his or her political capital to open the doors to opportunities for you.

Typically someone senior to you in the company, a sponsor provides career guidance (like a mentor does), but will also more importantly deploy his or her political capital to open the doors to opportunities for you.

If career advancement opportunities seem to evade you even though you have put in a lot of hard work and are good at what you do, it may be time to enlist the help of a sponsor.

Typically someone senior to you in the company, a sponsor provides career guidance (like a mentor does), but will also more importantly deploy his or her political capital to open the doors to opportunities for you.

Metaphorically, a mentor teaches you the finer intricacies of ballroom dancing, but it is the sponsor who gets you invited to the parties so you can show off your dancing skills.

A few years ago, thanks to a sponsor, I was asked to lead a thorny, cross-functional project which could have had serious downside risks for the company in an already tough market should it have gone belly up.

I was surprised as I was not the most obvious candidate, not to mention that the work was beyond my usual scope and even pay grade. 

Even though I felt confident I could manage, I also knew there were others (who outranked me) who coveted this task because it came with considerable “prime time” with the top management team, people whose opinions matter most in the company.

So I thanked my sponsor profusely and prayed I would not mess it up.

Upon the successful completion of the project, I received a generous one-time bonus and notes of appreciation from the higher-ups.

But the icing on the cake was that I earned political capital and sharpened my skills at managing high-stakes projects at the same time.

This was one of the important moments in my career where a sponsor was instrumental in helping to lift my career (and financial) prospects.

MOST EMPLOYEES DO NOT (YET) HAVE A SPONSOR

Even though there are clear advantages to having a sponsor — such as a faster career track or better compensation — not many of us have one, or are aware we have one.

A recent survey of 1,000 employees in the United States revealed that fewer than 25 per cent had a sponsor, or had one in the past, compared with 63 per cent with a mentor.

If there is a Singapore version of this survey, I think the findings would be similar.

This may be the case for a few reasons.

Blind sight. The most obvious one is that you either do not know that sponsors exist or wrongly assume that mentors (who are far more common) actually do what sponsors do. 

While both may provide advice, it is the sponsor who will stick his or her neck out for you (if you are deemed worthy) to see you succeed, by being an advocate and shining the spotlight on you where appropriate. 

If we are blind-sighted, we will not make efforts to position ourselves to court a would-be sponsor.

It does not happen overnight. Even if you know that you need a sponsor and are working on getting one, would-be sponsors do not suddenly wake up one day and say: “Okay, let’s go get you that promotion you deserve.” 

Because they are unlikely to risk their political capital for purely altruistic reasons, they need to be quite certain that investing in a potential protégé will strengthen their own reputation (for uncovering / developing talent for instance) and power (building the base of trusted “hands” that can be counted on). 

And they do have plenty of options to choose from.

Self-selection. Some of us may think support from sponsors is reserved for protégés who are at least in middle management. This is not necessarily the case.

Case in point: Shortly after I started my first full-time job, a sponsor (I had probably made a favourable enough impression on her as an intern) told my manager she would like me to be a member of a strategic project she was overseeing. 

That opened many doors for me later on, never mind that being the most junior person on the project, I did all the grunt work for months.

EARNING A SPONSORSHIP

While it is tempting to target as many potential sponsors as possible, “speed-dating” is unlikely to be optimal. 

A would-be sponsor who does not know you (and your work) well enough is unlikely to say yes. 

Remember, he or she will be assessing if taking you on as a protégé will give them a “return on investment” that also fuels their own success.

Start with people you are familiar with. 

When contemplating potential sponsors, it makes sense to consider people (senior to you) in your work area or division because they are likely to have some line of sight of your work contributions and also have the most to gain if you do well.

While they should ideally be as high up in the chain of command as possible, you should not overlook your immediate manager or his or her peers if they have the clout to power your career trajectory.

Nor should you assume that your manager will be your sponsor by default.

As a manager, I did my best to ensure that everyone on my team had access to growth opportunities but I had to reserve the finite political capital I had to fast track those who consistently outperformed the others.

Doing your job only gets you this far. 

Think about how you can make yourself more visible and attractive to potential sponsors on your shortlist.

There’s no shame in being a little opportunistic here. 

One effective way is to put your hand up for (stretch) assignments or high-profile projects that matter to your targets, or offer to help them with meaningful tasks on their plate. Of course, you’ll have to do these well.

Like trust, sponsorship needs to be earned constantly. 

It may seem obvious but when you finally end up with a sponsor, that’s just the beginning of the journey. Most likely, your new sponsor will not be going “all in” with his or her political capital for you right at the start.

Think of this as something similar to sponsorship “tiers” for an event. 

A first-time sponsor is likely to want to “test the waters” before increasing the commitment all the way to a “platinum sponsor” if things work out. 

Conversely, a long-time sponsor may drop the sponsorship if the return on investment falls short of expectations. 

THERE’S ONLY UPSIDE IF YOU PLAY BY THE RULES

“You can’t do anything wrong in her eyes,” a colleague close to me once said wistfully in passing, referring to the relationship I have with my sponsor.

This was not quite accurate. While I did (and still) have a great relationship with my sponsor, it was always professional. 

She gave me harsh feedback when it was deserved, just like she helped open doors to opportunities only if she felt I deserved and could deliver.

Quite understandably, sponsor-protégé relationships may be viewed with some level of scepticism or even disdain.

Snarky name-calling aside — a protégé may be given unflattering nicknames like “pet” or “blue-eyed boy” while a sponsor may be known as “godmother” or “godfather” — perceptions of favouritism and unprofessional behaviour are not uncommon.

Don’t let this deter you. 

Ultimately, sponsors and protégées have deep, vested interests in ensuring they stay professional. 

After all, nothing hurts a career faster than a full-blown scandal or even a tainted reputation.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Roger Pua has more than 25 years of international work experience, and was most recently senior director of brand marketing and corporate communications at LinkedIn. 

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job career sponsor work opportunity

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