Here we offer advice on how to find a career sponsor and why it’s a good idea, plus nine key tips for success. 

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know that counts.’ So goes that old adage that smacks of nepotism and an old boy’s club mentality. Promotion should surely be determined on merit alone? 

But then ability hasn’t been helping everyone with talent get ahead. Black and ethnic minority professionals, women and those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, are all still underrepresented in leadership roles. Amid all the complexities of delivering true equal opportunity across society, one aspect could be relatively simple: they don’t know who they need to know to get ahead.

Consequently, individuals and firms have been giving more thought as to how to help rising talent make the right connections via sponsorship – partnering more junior employees with someone in a leadership role who can elevate career prospects and give ambitions a boost in the right direction. Done well, it can be a powerful force to help individuals advance, as well as improving a firm’s retention rates via better employee engagement. It could give diversity an important boost too.

This was demonstrated to us at a webinar we hosted recently, in which a panel of black professionals working in senior business services roles in law outlined the important factors that had helped drive their career success. A key piece of advice they shared was to get sponsorship. ‘Being good at what you do isn’t enough,’ said one panelist. ‘You need the support of someone senior, who has agency, who is influential and has a seat at the decision-making table.’

While all agreed that mentors are important too, they differ to sponsors. Mentors often come about organically and comprise any number of people from all walks of life – from colleagues to friends. One panelist credited her hairdresser as a fantastic mentor, who had given her invaluable advice over the years.

Sponsors, however, are far more specific to the role of proactively opening doors to job advancement. The following provides a few tips on how to find and nurture a career sponsor.

  1. In her book, Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor, Sylvia Ann Hewlett describes mentors as those with whom you can discuss issues that you would not dare bring up with your boss and colleagues. But sponsors are different – their chief role, she argues, is to develop you as a leader. ‘Not so much from like-mindedness or altruism,’ she says, ‘But because furthering your career helps further their career, organization or vision’. 

  2. With this in mind, when looking for a sponsor, it is important to be strategic. It’s not about looking for a friend or role model, but someone who is well placed to advance your career and open doors for you. A good sponsor needs to have a strong voice at the top table.

  3. A good sponsor is likely to be someone who is considerably more senior than you – at least two levels up or a Director or above in a small firm. Alternatively, they may have a role that reflects the route you want your career to take – for example, heading up a particular specialism in the firm. Think about what outcome you would like to achieve from having this person on side.

  4. Sponsorship is a particularly powerful tool for improving diversity. Women, black and ethnic minority professionals, and those who don’t come from a well-connected socio-economic background can all benefit immeasurably from a sponsor who can identify opportunities and make sure they are positioned in a way that will highlight talent and potential. At the same time, however, it is not necessary to seek out a sponsor who shares an affinity with you (same race or gender, for example) – it is their position in the firm that is key.

  5. Some professional services firms now have structured sponsorship programmes that may be worth exploring when looking for a new role/firm. Such programmes may be targeted at a particular group – for example, linking up women with sponsors who will review and discuss their career plan and work with them to help them achieve their full potential.

  6. If your firm doesn’t have a formal programme, you can (and should) still approach potential sponsors but there may be better ways of doing it than asking outright for sponsorship (unless you already know each other really well). Find opportunities to work with your ideal sponsor, ask for advice, their opinion on a piece of work, or get involved in projects that can demonstrate your value on their team. Don’t forget to share your victories with your target sponsor too – don’t be an unsung hero.

  7. Also consider what you could bring to your potential sponsor as it should be a two-way relationship – for example, do you have sought-after language skills, technical knowledge or experience of a particular region/sector? All of this can make you an attractive candidate for a sponsor making their own way in the firm.

  8. Sponsor relationships take time to develop so it is never too early to start. The more experience a potential sponsor has of your work, the more likely they will be in a position to advocate for you. Think about getting involved in broader projects across the firm that might make you stand out to a potential sponsor – and earmark you for leadership.

  9. Understand your own career ambition. If you know where you want to get to, and you have a keen sense of your goals and the skill sets you wish to learn, you will be better placed to establish a constructive sponsor relationship in which you can learn from him/her and show off your own capabilities.

In years gone by, sponsor relationships would have developed naturally and probably gone to those already well plugged into the broad social hierarchy. In today’s large and complex firms, great sponsorship opportunities are likely to take a little more work. 

But at the same time, there is far more understanding of the benefits of sponsorship, and of the needs to use it to support minority groups to have the equal opportunities that will advance their careers.

With the right planning and investment, it’s a relationship that can pay dividends for long-term career success.


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