Forget a Mentor. Find a Sponsor if You Want to Succeed

Jan 27, 2014

Sylvia Ann Hewlett presents at a Center for Talent Innovation event.

Have you found your sponsor yet?

Not a mentor, a sponsor. Sure, a mentor is important in helping to define your dream and understand your world. But it’s a sponsor that’s the dream-enabler, says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, a scholar, author and president and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI). A sponsor is key for really fast-tracking your career, she says, connecting you with the right people and supporting your ascent.

Hewlett learned that lesson the hard way, getting passed over for tenure when she was an assistant professor of economics at Barnard College, Columbia University. That experience taught her that she needed powerful sponsors to achieve her dreams — a life lesson she shares in her widely read book, “Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor.”

As one of six sisters raised up in a Welsh mining town, Hewlett beat the odds to gain entry into Cambridge University, Harvard University, and eventually London University, where she earned her PhD. Throughout her education, and later in her career, she had key support from sponsors.

Now, Hewlett is working to ensure others get a similar boost. And she has numbers to back up her argument on the importance of finding a personal champion, through research done at CTI. For example, people with sponsors are more satisfied with their rate of advancement, identifying a “sponsor effect” of 23% for men and 19% for women. And that effect can spill over into everything from raises, high-profile assignments, and promotions.

Top companies from a wide range of sectors, such as Morgan Stanley and Crowell & Moring, are also quickly realizing the benefits of facilitating sponsorships among their ranks.

Hewlett advises companies creating their own sponsorship programs, but much of her focus is on reaching the employees out there looking to get ahead, spreading the message that “it’s never too late to foster such a relationship.” spoke with Hewlett about the “emotional bond” that people can form with sponsors, tips on how to find one, and how companies can facilitate these crucial relationships:

In your book, you describe having key sponsors early in your life as a student, as well as later, when you were making a career change. How much credit do you give these personal champions for your success?

I grew up in the poor Welsh mining valleys and knew early on that I wanted to have a better life than what my surroundings could offer. I was fortunate to have quite a few vital sponsors along the way that supported my education and career. I also learned early in my life that meritocracy and hard work will only get you so far in this world; sponsors are the ones that really create traction for you and bring your career to the next level.

You’ve said mentors can help define your dream, but sponsors enable them. Do people need both in their lives?

Yes. Mentors can build your self-esteem and provide a sounding board—they are not the ticket to the top. Mentors advise; sponsors act.

Sponsors deliver; they make you visible to leaders within the company, and to top people outside as well. They connect you to career opportunities and provide air cover when you encounter trouble. When it comes to opening doors, they don’t stop with one promotion—they’ll see you to the threshold of power. There is an emotional bond with one’s sponsor beyond just the simple fact of “getting ahead.”

What’s the best way of finding a sponsor, given that it’s usually not someone within your immediate circle of friends or colleagues?

Set your sights on potential sponsors with similar goals and aspirations for the organization. Also, invest time in finding someone who you know will believe in you and go out on a limb on your behalf, advocate for your next promotion, and provide air cover. Ideally, this is someone two levels or more above you with real power and influence in the space in which you aspire to be (i.e., your boss’ boss).

You need to be very strategic and tactful when finding a sponsor. Role models are great but they may not prove to be effective sponsors—put efficacy over affinity. Be sure to look for a sponsor with the power to change your career and become a strategic ally. Also, don’t be put off by certain leadership styles; you need to respect your sponsor, not emulate him or her. In the end it’s a sponsor’s clout, not style, that will turbocharge your career.

In addition, the book references the 2+1 rule, which is to ensure you have two sponsors within your company (in case one sponsor decides to leave) and an outside sponsor that will be an advocate and promote your brand outside your company.

What can companies do to help facilitate sponsorships, and how do they benefit?

You can’t force the relationship. You can’t say to your executive team, “Go pick a woman and sponsor her.” It has to be organic. So what companies are doing very successfully is making both sides of the equation aware of how powerful this relationship can be and they are creating “pathways” for sponsorship.

I’ll give an example. At Morgan Stanley, newly minted female managing directors never met the very senior guys, because there were no women at the top to speak of and there was no natural way of connecting. So the company put on a breakfast every month that was very carefully planned. They invited their senior 15 leaders and the newly promoted class of female managing directors (which was exactly the level where they tended to lose women). They seated them cleverly, made sure the women gave some of the presentations, and sponsorship flourished. They just needed a venue to showcase each other’s abilities.

One thing that is critical to emphasize—and this is so clear in the research—is that sponsorship is not a burden, unlike mentoring. As a sponsor, you very carefully select just two or three protégés because they have enormous potential; they are giving more to you than you’re giving to them. They propel the career of the senior person, as well.

We’ve measured this. Leaders who have a posse of incredibly proactive protégés are 13% more likely themselves to get to the next level of leadership. It increases their scope and span.

Are there other examples of some companies that are doing it right, creating the right environment for these relationships to develop?

Many of CTI’s Task Force member companies have been very proactive about implementing programs and initiatives aimed at advancing top female and multicultural talent. One great example is AT&T and their program called “Championing Our Senior Leaders”—a sponsorship initiative aimed at accelerating the advocacy of select qualified female, male, and multicultural talent. The program centers on 20-plus senior leaders who have a track record of delivering strong results. Drawing on CTI’s sponsorship research and conversations with other Task Force members, AT&T determined that the best way to encourage a two-way relationship was to encourage lead officers to select two or three protégés from among those identified as high-potential. The program was a huge success because of the informal nature of the meetings. The pairs set their own pace, determining their own meetings, agenda, and action steps. AT&T is hopeful that many of these relationships will develop into sponsorships.

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