In 2013, economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett published a pathfinding book telling us to Forget a Mentor, Get a Sponsor.
Until then, mentors were considered de rigeur for advancing careers. And despite the title, she still found value in them. But mentors counsel you because they like you or you remind them of themselves, or perhaps they are paying back for help they received in their own career. They listen and perhaps offer advice or a nudge. Sponsors are more activist. They help you get ahead, steering you, but that comes because they figure it will be an important investment in their own career.
She has now offered another book that caries that notion further, looking at the issue from the sponsor’s side: The Sponsor Effect: How to be a Better Leader by Investing in Others. “Sponsorship, thus, isn’t charity or granting a favour; it’s a powerful leadership capability. Are you an entry- or mid-level manager, hoping to work better, grow your influence, and get promoted faster? The right protégé can fill gaps in your skill set, take responsibilities off your plate when your calendar gets crowded, offer moral support when you need it, and build your personal brand. Are you at the top of your organization or near it, seeking loyal lieutenants and the capacity to extend your reach throughout the enterprise? The right protégé will complement your leadership skills and style, provide honest feedback, make you feel that you have extra hours in the day, and enable your influence to persist even after you’ve moved on to your next role or responsibility,” she writes.
Sponsorship requires active involvement by both parties. The protégé delivers performance loyalty and adds to the value the sponsor provides the organization. The sponsor invests a belief in the protégé and willingness to risk political capital on that individual. The sponsor advocates for the protégé and helps to cover for them.
“Sponsorship’s reciprocity sets it apart not only from mentorship; it also sets it apart from standard corporate leadership development. Sponsors aren’t just grooming somebody to rise higher. They certainly are looking to fill organizational needs, but they’re also taking a bet that their own careers can benefit if they invest in a promising individual’s talent, skill sets and trustworthiness,” she stresses.
It comes with risks. When mentoring, if the protégé disappoints, nobody holds you responsible. You were just helping out, advising. But here the two of you are tied more closely together. Slips can reduce your productivity and impair your image.
She points to the selection of an American vice-presidential candidate, which fits the sponsorship model. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. Selecting Sarah Palin remains to this day a blemish on John McCain’s legacy, she notes. But she points out that George W. Bush’s sponsorship of Condoleezza Rice boosted both of them.
Indeed, politics provides a convenient model. United Kingdom TV producer Trevor Phillips says, “[I]n politics if you are part of this guy’s gang, then everybody knows it. It’s absolutely clear to everyone that part of your job is to support him and part of his job is to help you. It is a deal. Sponsorship is always a deal.”
Hewlett lists seven steps to effective sponsorship:
- Identify potential protégés: Know what to look for in the talent you’re considering, starting with a strong work ethic, top performance and loyalty. In effect, you want a right-hand person and have three criteria to keep in mind: the person can reward your investment by helping you to work better, provide loyalty to both you and the organization, and fill a gap in your abilities and the unit’s.
- Include diverse perspectives: Find those who are different from you. That can be in mindset, gender, age, ethnicity, experience or background. You don’t want a mini-me. Your network likely is not all that diverse, and you will need to pay attention to all dimensions of diversity, including transformative skills and sensitivity.
- Inspire for performance and loyalty: Ensure the protégé’s values align with yours, and use their passion and ambition – as well as your support, example and empowerment – to spur them forward. “If you can inspire a protégé with a vision of what you can achieve together, he or she will be more committed and better prepared to go the extra mile for you,” she notes. As well, look inward at your own motivations and drive to consider what might inspire others.
- Instruct to fill skill gaps: The protégé is being groomed for greater heights. Work with them as you move towards sponsorship to develop the knowledge and soft skills they will need. She stresses the protégé must do the work. “A great early assignment for potential protégés is to identify three skills gaps and the steps they intend to take to close those gaps. Offer feedback on their plan and perhaps one piece of targeted coaching, but make clear they must own their own development,” she says. To succeed, you must offer unvarnished feedback in this relationship, and that will mean getting the protégé to give the “green light” to such honest assessments.
- Inspect your prospects: Keep an eye on your prospects before moving to sponsorship to make sure they’re continuing to deliver performance and maintain trustworthiness. Pay close attention to values and attitudes. You won’t necessarily pick right each time and need to know when to cut your losses. Listen to others about how they assess the protégé (who after all is representing you). What do colleagues, superiors, and outside parties you deal with think?
- Instigate a deal: Having inspired, instructed and inspected, now ask if they want to go the next step to sponsorship. Be explicit. Specify in some detail the two-way flow of benefits you foresee. Keep in mind your organizational culture. In traditional ones, you may need to move slowly as sponsorship can arouse suspicions. But even then, be clear with the protégé about what is expected.
- Invest in three ways: You now need to be “all in.” Investment one is to endorse in noisy ways, being very obvious. Investment two is to advocate behind closed doors to help the person get ahead, be it a rotation that will offer new skills, a promotion, or a pay hike. Investment three is to provide air support so your protégé can take risks.
Hewlett warns that her data found many sponsors fall short in three ways. The inclusion gap is the need for protégés who are different from you, since the protégé can add the most value if they can provide something you lack. But she found only 23 per cent of sponsors look for a protégé who has attributes they do not have. Over three quarters of sponsors – 77 per cent – look for a mini-me.
The second common mistake is a failure to thoroughly inspect a protégé for trustworthiness before getting behind the individual. Sponsors focus primarily on performance. “But performance should really be table stakes. Surely your organization has many young top performers! What you should be concerned about when evaluating a potential protégé is loyalty to you and the organization,” she writes. The most common reason sponsors gave for ending the relationship – it arose in 73 per cent of cases – was a protégé’s dishonesty.
The third issue is an investment gap, keeping the relationship short-term rather than being long term. In 38 per cent of situations, she found the sponsorship ending after two years or less. But you should want this person at your side – and be at their side – for a long period.
Sponsorship is not mentorship. It’s a bigger investment, a bigger risk. But it has a bigger payoff – for you, as well as the person you take under your wing.