Bhasin highly recommended a book entitled (Forget a Mentor) Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career by Sylvia Ann Hewlett. I enjoy following career advancement research, and had heard “sponsorship” was the latest hot topic in the field. Having been convinced by her talk that Bhasin knew her stuff, I bought a copy on my e-reader that day.
It was one of the most engaging career advice books I’ve ever read (and, nerdy as it is, I find this field fascinating, so I’ve read my fair share). Despite being wildly accomplished, Hewlett is very honest about her own career flubs. She bravely “goes there” about potential obstacles that are typically taboo (such as sex in the workplace — yikes). I could review all the gems in this book in several columns, but will focus here on the core discussion of sponsorship.
Hewlett introduces the mentorship concept by asking readers, “Who’s pulling for you? Who’s got your back? Who’s putting your hat in the ring? Odds are, this person is not a mentor but a sponsor.” In the early pages, she describes the essence of the sponsor role:
“Sponsors give advice and guidance, but they also come through on much more important fronts. In particular, they:
• Believe in your value and your potential and are prepared to link reputations and go out on a limb on your behalf.
• Have a voice at the decision-making tables and are willing to be your champion — convincing others that you deserve a pay raise or a promotion.
• Are willing to give you air cover so that you can take risks. No one can accomplish great things if they don’t have a senior leader in their corner making it safe to fail.”
Hewlett notes women with children can especially benefit from sponsors. She cites her research that “85 per cent of mothers (employed full-time) who have sponsors stay in the game, compared to only 58 per cent of those going it alone. That’s a sponsor effect of 27 per cent.”
How does a sponsor differ from a mentor? Hewlett describes it this way, at various parts of the book:
“Mentors give, whereas sponsors invest.”
“Sponsorship, done right, is transactional. It’s an implicit or even explicit strategic alliance, a long-range quid pro quo.”
“Indeed, throughout the relationship, you’re delivering outstanding results, building their brand or legacy, and generally making [your sponsor] look good.”
Whoa. This floored me. I have definitely been the beneficiary of a few sponsors throughout my career, dating back even to my high school days. I had always considered them mentors, but on reflection, the relationship was more reciprocal than a mentorship. These have been individuals who, as Hewlett describes, made a significant investment in my success, and I believe (hope) I returned the favour by advancing some of their goals, too.
I work for a particular lawyer now who regularly encourages me to take on stretch assignments. These are usually files or court appearances I have seen many times, but have never done on my own. I always feel a mix of gratitude, excitement, and panic when these assignments come in, but I have surprised myself by how much I know and what I’m capable of. Without this sponsor’s pushing and that “air cover,” I wouldn’t have nearly the confidence in myself I do now.
In order to attract effective sponsors, Hewlett tells us we need to be loyal, trustworthy, help the sponsor grow his or her scope of practice, and have skills that complement his or her expertise. We need to be quality team members, prepared to provide back up and top-notch “bench strength” when needed.
To me, this means you need to work your tail off, do awesome work, and always strive to make your sponsor look good. When your sponsor wins, you win, and vice versa. Importantly, Hewlett points out we should strive to find sponsors both inside and outside our current organizations in order to maintain a broad support base. An external sponsor might assist by connecting you with important people in your field, finding you opportunities to speak publicly outside your organization, and so on.
I think many new lawyers find the concept of career strategy a bit distasteful. Some think if we just keep our heads down and do good work, everything will fall into place. And maybe that’s where this starts — by working hard and doing good work, you will attract sponsors and get those big opportunities. But this book, and life experience, has convinced me we do need sponsors — people ready to run interference and help us navigate our career path, whether in our current positions or in charting a new course entirely.
It’s wonderful to have sounding boards and cheerleaders, but sponsors are prepared to do some heavy lifting to launch your career in exchange for your loyalty and hard work. That’s a quid pro quo I can get behind.