Career Tips

10.02.134:45 AM ET

How To Impress Your Work Sponsor

For young women looking to get ahead in their field, being a great mentee isn't just a one-way street. In her new book, 'Forget A Mentor: Find A Sponsor,' Sylvia Ann Hewlett spells out why it's not all about you.

You’re a blazing talent. You’re on everyone’s short list when it comes to plum assignments or missions impossible. Senior leaders want you on their team or special project. You’ve got a mentor. You’ve been given a coach. You’re being tapped for leadership development.

All systems go, right?

But if for even a minute you sit back and bask in this beneficence—if you think that this attention you’ve been shown is all about you—then you may have already squan­dered your opportunity. Being a great mentee is not the skill set that will endear you to sponsors. Indeed, the mentee mindset will cost you the support you now enjoy. It will mark you as a permanent follower.

Kelly, a global talent executive at a Fortune 500 financial services firm, tells a cautionary tale about a vice president, a direct report of hers whom she selected to advance but who failed to grasp the reciprocity of their relationship.

“I’m always looking for talent to develop, and I saw great things in him,” she began, insisting I not use her name because “everyone would know” whom she was referencing. “So I put my reputation on the line and got him a role on another team where I thought he could build on his skill set, which was very complementary to mine. He was the kind of guy you could put in a room and he’d come up with the big idea, the sort of solution I would never have come up with on my own.”

But then she didn’t hear from him. Weeks went by. A new quarter began. Kelly had her assistant set up a face-to-face meeting with him. “He came in, sat down all relaxed. He thought we were just going to have a catch-up,” she recalled. “And we were. But I laid it out for him. I said, ‘You know I’m your sponsor, right?’ Now he’s shifting in his seat, realizing this is more than a chat. ‘Yes,’ he said, and thanked me. I said, ‘I’m not looking for your thanks. This is mutual: we’re in this together. Three, four months have gone by, and I don’t know how you’re performing. I have no idea if you’re struggling, if you need air cover, if you need a sounding board or what. And that’s a liability for me. Because you’re walking around with my brand on.

“He nodded, said he got it, promised he’d stay in touch,” Kelly continued. “And for the next month, he did—an e-mail here and there, telling me ‘Here’s what I’m doing about this,’ what was going well, what wasn’t. He even left me cookies with a thank-you note. But then he dropped off my radar. And I happened to know he was struggling, and that, as a result, his commitment to the company was on the downslope.”

It was clear, as Kelly related this story, that she was still turning over what went wrong, and why. “He just didn’t get the reciprocity,” she reflected. “He didn’t get that I needed to be kept in the loop, especially if he was struggling, because other people were making presumptions about my eye for talent. Without regular communication, without line of sight, I couldn’t manage his success. I couldn’t assess the risks versus the rewards of sponsoring him.”

Shaking her head, she added, “It was very shortsighted of him not to have understood we were in this together.”

Acknowledging the Pact

Sponsors may look like selfless benefactors, but they’re not, not the authentic ones anyway. They can’t afford to be. Given the energy that sponsorship requires and the consid­erable risk it entails for the sponsor, no senior leader is going to place huge bets on anybody who doesn’t assure him some kind of payback. What sponsors are looking for, above all, in a protégé is someone who will deliver standout performance and be loyal and reliable.

Not every would-be protégé gets this. Neither do some would-be sponsors, according to CTI research. In our national survey, we asked managers why they cultivated pro­tégés: was it for the benefit of the protégé or did they see the relationship benefiting themselves? Overwhelmingly, male managers—77 percent—saw it benefiting their own careers, whereas female managers—74 percent of them—assured us it was the right thing to do for the protégé’s career. Men, that is, grasped the strategic value of sponsorship, whereas women saw it as mentorship writ large.

The misunderstanding stems in large part, I think, from years of mentoring initiatives. Mentoring has been hugely popular in corporate America. Human resource professionals and talent managers have seen it as something of a silver bullet for women and people of color. They craft programs, allocate budgets, engineer pairings, orchestrate meetings, and wait for the magic to happen. A 2008 Catalyst survey of full-time employees with MBAs found that 83 percent of the women and 76 percent of the men had been mentored.You’d be hard-pressed these days to find a professional in middle management who hasn’t been mentored to death.

Hence the mentee mind-set: a reflexive tendency to per­ceive any relationship with a senior person as one more piece of your personal development. Accustomed to the one-way flow of mentorship, promising young talent (like Kelly’s protégé) approach sponsorship with the wrong assumptions and expectations. Mentees expect to be guided; they wait pas­sively to be helped. When they’re given a good steer or an open door, they perceive it as a gift rather than a debt. They persist in seeing themselves as hard-working performers who deserve a good turn to get them on their way, employees who owe no one because they’ve earned their gift.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that Kelly’s protégé “just didn’t get the reciprocity.” Mentoring has inculcated a cul­ture of expectation.

You shouldn’t make that mistake. Sponsors go out on a limb for someone who demonstrates she’s going to go the extra mile. Sponsors advocate for someone who shows he’ll continue to deliver strong results, not just for the sponsor but for the firm. Sponsors protect someone who recognizes that the sponsor’s reputation is at stake. Be that someone: Signal you’ll be a contributor. Show you’ll go the extra mile.

Deliver exceptional performance and prove yourself emi­nently trustworthy.


Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career by Sylvia Ann Hewlett. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.


Sylvia Ann Hewlett is president of the Center for Talent Innovation and Sylvia Ann Hewlett Associates. She is the author of 12 books, including Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career. Follow her on Twitter at @sahewlett.