How to Attract and Keep a Sponsor in Your Workplace

Want to Know How a Sponsor Can Help You Succeed at Work?

Woman meeting two men, all dressed in formal business attire
A Sponsor Can Propel Your Career Forward. Joshua Hodge Photography/E+/Getty Images

A sponsor is someone with power who knows you and your potential, who advocates for your success on the corporate (or organizational) ladder, and who helps remove obstacles to your progress. A sponsor is someone who is willing to champion your progress.

A sponsor is someone who has enough clout to make a difference in decisions others make about your progress. A sponsor believes in you and your skills and abilities enough to risk her or his own credibility for you.

A sponsor has enough faith in your ultimate success to protect you so that you can take risks and make occasional mistakes and missteps without those setting your career back.

In an article in the New York Times, Sylvia Ann Hewlett describes the sponsor that Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook found in Lawrence H. Summers, who selected her for key positions that gave her the experience and visibility to become a Facebook executive at age 29.

What Does a Sponsor Do?

Some examples of the kinds of actions that a sponsor might take on your behalf:

  • Hires you for a position, especially one where you can learn and advance even further.
  • Actively puts your name forward when an opening is available that matches your skills and abilities.
  • Actively considers and seeks out openings, assignments, and opportunities where you can advance.
  • Makes a call to or has a one-on-one meeting with a decision maker who has the authority to say “yes” to an opportunity or promotion for you.
  • Speaks up for your skills and abilities in meetings, when your name comes up or when opportunities come up.
  • Tells you what you need to do and know to get chosen for the opening or opportunity.
  • Connects you with others who can help you make progress, and prepares those others to see you favorably.
  • Advocates for good initial pay in a new position, or a good pay raise or bonus within a current position—and has enough influence with the decision makers to make these likely to happen.
  • If you’re an entrepreneur, a sponsor may open doors for venture capital or other investment.
  • Defends or protects you in times when you’ve taken risks and failed, reminding the decision makers that risk is part of success—and expresses faith in your ultimate success.

Different from a Supporter or a Mentor

A good sponsor is also a supporter and a mentor, but a sponsor is more than either of those. A supporter or mentor is sometimes the person who will help you figure out that you need a sponsor and how to find one.

A supporter is someone at any level who supports your progress, but may not have the clout to remove obstacles. Supporters express encouragement, and sometimes speak up for you or help your progress.

A mentor is someone who helps you understand what you need to progress through the organization, to fulfill your potential. Your mentor is an advisor—to you. A mentor focuses on changes you need to make to progress. Sometimes, a change you need to make is to find a sponsor.

A sponsor is also a supporter and sometimes is also a mentor, but is much more: an active advocate with the power to smooth the path for you, to get your name into the right conversations at the right level, to open doors by influencing decision-makers you might otherwise have no access to.

Why Do You Want a Sponsor?

To be on the fast track in your organizational progress, you’ll want a sponsor. Mentors and supporters can help you make career progress, but that kind of help depends on decision makers happening to notice you and your work.

A sponsor speeds up the process, by getting your name into the right conversations at the right time and at the right level, and helping decisionmakers understand why you are the right person for the opportunity.

What Are the Sponsor’s Responsibilities?

To be an advocate, first, a sponsor needs to be familiar with you and your best—your skills and abilities, your success record, and your potential and your dreams. If a sponsor pushes your case for an opportunity that isn’t a good fit, that isn’t good for your success, for the sponsor’s reputation, or for the decision-makers.

Next, the sponsor is proactive in looking for opportunities that are appropriate for you and proactive in promoting your fit for those opportunities.

The sponsor talks up your potential with decision-makers, usually with information about past successes that provide evidence to back up the sponsor’s faith in you, and an enthusiasm that expresses that faith.

The sponsor is willing to use influence with contacts in order to promote your success. Or to make opportunities more directly, hiring you or investing in your project.

The sponsor and you keep in contact so that the sponsor can continue to promote you where you are and keep eyes open for further opportunities.

The sponsor makes clear that this is a professional relationship, not a personal one, and actively avoids situations and occasions that would cross that line. When the sponsor is a man and is sponsoring a woman, this is especially important.

A sponsor can help you propel your career forward in ways that you'd otherwise not experience.  For career success, consider how to find and keep a sponsor who can really help you advance.

How to Attract a Sponsor Who Can Help You

Are you interested in attracting a sponsor who can help you find opportunities to learn and grow in your career? The relationship must be mutually beneficial—not just for you. Think about it: what’s in it for the sponsor? The sponsor takes the risks and spends the time promoting your career because your success will reflect well on the sponsor.

And, those the sponsor influences to take you on will be grateful to the sponsor for the great find that you are. So, to attract and keep a sponsor, you have to show that you’re worth that risk and effort.

How Do You Attract and Keep a Sponsor?

To find a possible sponsor, look for opportunities to interact with those who are in more senior positions than you are with clout and power. Volunteer to be the one to make a presentation for your group.

Look around for people in your family and friendship circles who have influence in the field you’re in or want to be in. Get involved in networking and professional groups that include people in more senior positions, in your organization or in related organizations.

You’ll need to show a potential sponsor your extraordinary success record, and make clear through your current performance that you have high potential to succeed even more as you advance. Promote your own strengths and successes, in a way that also shows you are a team player, who works well with others and whose colleagues are supporters.

Make sure that visible evidence exists that demonstrates your potential in both your current and past performance. (No reputable sponsor is going to go to bat for you if your approach is: “I’m not doing well in this job because it isn’t right for me, but I’d be much better in a more responsible position.”)

Be clear, first with yourself, then with possible sponsors, about your dreams and what you see as your potential. You want a sponsor to open the doors to your dream career, not to sidetrack it to opportunities that aren’t interesting or appropriate for you.

If you’re looking for a career in higher education, for example, a sponsor who finds you a perfect spot in the meat-packing industry isn’t going to be very helpful.

Your sponsor will want to see that you’re respected where you are. Respect is a two-way street. Also make your respect for current colleagues, managers, customers and other contacts clear. Respect for those with whom you work doesn’t mean that you aren’t ever going to move on. But, it does mean that you don’t gossip about people with whom you work or to whom you report, put them down, or otherwise show disrespect for them.

Pitfalls to Avoid When You Have a Sponsor

The sponsor puts his or her credibility on the line, so make sure that you are honest with your sponsors and loyal to them. If you have any opportunities to help your sponsor’s success, take advantage of them.

It’s not a quid pro quo—your sponsor is likely much more powerful than you are right now. Your sponsor may do far more for you than you can do for her or him—but there must be a sense that you're looking out for each other.

Don’t hide your mistakes—that would be both dishonest and disloyal. Your sponsor doesn’t want to be surprised by very bad news from valued associates and friends.

If you do make mistakes in an opportunity the sponsor made possible, own up to your failure to your sponsor. Make clear what measures you’re already taking to pick yourself up, and share the lessons you’ve learned. Ask for feedback and advice from your sponsor.

Keep your sponsor in the loop on successes, too, so when another opportunity arises, the sponsor knows you’re ready.

While the sponsor has responsibility for not crossing the professional/personal line, you also have responsibility for this as the person being sponsored. Appearances matter, so avoid situations and occasions that might confuse onlookers (or you or the sponsor).

Does Sponsorship Work?

In an article in the New York Times, "Mentors Are Good. Sponsors Are Better.", and in her book,  Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor, Sylvia Ann Hewlett details research showing that those with sponsors succeed more quickly, on average than those without sponsors, even those with a mentor.

Hewlett also lists major corporations, including American Express, AT&T, Citigroup, Credit Suisse, Deloitte, Genentech and Morgan Stanley, that have begun programs to encourage sponsorship.

If you are willing to reach out to potential sponsors and have a positive track record, and the potential to soar—reach out. People are proud and happy to sponsor women and men who will make them look good—and who will have their backs, too.