A Smart Career Strategy: How to Go From Being Mentored to Sponsored

I have not met a leader in my career that has not been flattered or for a moment been pleased that someone thinks enough of them and what they do from a professional perspective to be asked to serve in a mentoring type capacity. The leader usually takes such a responsibility seriously if they are truly a good leader and care about the talent in their organization.


Conversely, I have not met anyone that has decided to seek out a leader that they admire for their work or to have the chance to learn more to accelerate their career, as a casual opportunity. It is usually just the opposite.


Both sides are usually very thoughtful about their intentions if there is an agreement to begin such a business relationship. This relationship is usually defined as a person providing insight and support to an individual serving in a listening or guiding capacity. The risk to the person mentoring is low. Many times such an agreement though intentional and serious more than likely happens quickly as we are all bombarded with multiple things that need to get done in the workplace. If there is strong rationale for the relationship; it sounds good on the surface and; there is a connection, then it usually happens.


Sponsoring on the other hand is when a person usually in a leadership capacity (or has huge organizational impact) is willing to put their career, reputation and organizational brand on the line vouching for someone else’s potential or future career. The stakes are much higher. It takes more time and involves a much more serious agreement between the two individuals. So chances are if I am that leader, I am not just going to put my career on the line for someone that I don’t quite know or have occasionally heard about. There is a huge trust factor that is involved upfront and throughout this type of relationship.


But where most mentees miss out is that they don’t think of how to plan early on and prepare for obtaining a sponsor even though they may not be ready for one or have the organizational reputation to obtain one.


So where does a savvy person who aspires to obtain sponsorship begin?


Start with the end in mind.


Do Your Homework On the Sponsor You Want: You may know about the person, see their work and level of contribution to the organization. But there’s nothing like doing your own due diligence. Really take the time to find out what others are saying about this person. What is their “hallway reputation”? I can personally speak of a mentoring relationship I was involved in initially as a mentee. I had sought a sponsorship relationship and it was agreed to by this very senior person. What I came to find out was that this person had a reputation of ruining careers and was highly political behind the scenes. Our relationship became about me watching my back and trying to exit gracefully. A transfer to a new job and division ultimately rescued me.


Know Specifically What You Are Asking For and Ask: In any relationship it is important to know what you are asking for and also be clear about what you can bring to the relationship especially if eventually you want that that person to serve as a sponsor. You have to know more and be able to articulate more than “I would like you to coach me or help me advance in my career.” What does that mean? Such a statement can be left up to a great deal of ambiguity and misaligned expectations. Be sure and clear on what you need and want as well as can offer. These relationships go both ways. Sylvia Ann Hewlett in her book, “Find a Sponsor, The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career”, provides great insight to the responsibilities of a person being sponsored.


Be Open and Transparent Up Front. If your intention is to have the person mentoring you eventually become a sponsor, share that with them. Why not? If they say that that it would be impossible or not preferred, you have a decision to make and/or an action to take. More importantly from the onset, you aren’t surprised and neither are they. It gives you and them a way out or allows the relationship to remain at the level it started out as – mentor and mentee.


PLEASE Seek To Build More Than One Sponsoring Relationship. We have all heard the saying “never put all of your eggs in one basket”. This could not be truer in any sponsoring relationship. Build a developmental network of sponsors ( or mentors) as defined by well noted mentoring expert, Kathy Kram. One may take more time than the other. But relying on one person to help you navigate, support you or more importantly be willing to put their career on the line, is a bad idea. We have all seen situations that when the sponsor left the organization (or was asked to leave), so did those that s/he publicly supported.


The opportunity to advance one’s career often starts with mentoring and can move to a more advanced stage defined as sponsorship. They are two very distinct roles that both parties have responsibility for. If developing and accelerating in your career is important to you, start with the end in mind. Have a clear purpose and goal. This is especially important as you navigate within and through your organization and just the corporate world in general.


Flickr Photo: Flazingo Photos


I am Francine Parham. My focus is professional and leadership development. I help individuals in the development of the critical skills they need in their careers to be successful in achieving their professional goals. I speak publicly about the value of professional networks and networking as well as navigating through corporate cultures. I am also the creator of “Maximizing Your Network!”™, which instructs you on how to build, interact with and maintain your professional network. Please connect with me at francineparham.com or attend my next speaking event in Stamford, Connecticut on April 16, 2015.