Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor
Sylvia Ann Hewlett
Harvard Business Review Press, 228 pages, $23.00
The title of career expert Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s latest book is catchy and counterintuitive: Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor. Finding mentors has been one of the holy grails of career progression, hammered into us by innumerable career consultants and the lessons of our own career. Yet now, someone is telling us to forget them. Find a sponsor, instead, whatever that might be. In the words of her subtitle, it’s The New Way to Fast Track Your Career.
Of course, new ways to fast track anything are always being hawked at us, from diets to change management approaches. Sometimes they don’t work. Often they are the same old thing, retooled to make somebody else’s career. Certainly Hewlett is exaggerating with her title: She actually does believe in mentors. But not so much. Our initial reaction, also, might be that this is a distinction without a difference: Mentors and sponsors seem similar.
But Hewlett argues there is a difference between mentors and sponsors – a big difference in what they do, and the results they provide to protégés, according to her research, and her own career progression (as well as one big misstep). After considering her argument, you may agree, using the evidence of your own career until now. If so, you may want to buy into her premise – and start applying her techniques – finding some sponsors to propel your career to the next level.
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 patiently and sympathetically to whatever you want to discuss. “Indeed, the whole idea of having a mentor is to discuss what you cannot or dare not bring up with your boss or colleagues. Your mentor will listen to your issues, offer advice, and review which problem-solving approaches to take and which to discard,” she writes. The energy flows one way: to you.
A sponsor also takes an interest in your career, but not out of altruism or like-mindedness. They help you get ahead, steering you, but that comes because they figure it will be an important investment in their own career. “Your role is to earn their investment in you. Indeed, throughout the relationship, you’re delivering outstanding results, building their brand or legacy, and generally making them look good,” she says.
Sponsors may be role models, but need not be. You may not be like them and they may not see themselves in you. Affinity is far less important in sponsorship than trust. And power: They can, and will, use the power they have to advance your career.
One story that sticks out from the book, concisely explaining sponsorship, is of a tax lawyer who hired someone and then supported her all the way to partnership. When his long-term clients hesitated to deal with this newcomer and junior person, the sponsor vouched for her. When a partner expressed criticisms that were unfair, the sponsor intervened, gaining an apology and a pledge to look more fairly at his protégé. “In subtle and overt ways, he ensured that she was able to thrive, which indeed she did, making partner in four years,” Hewlett recounts. That’s sponsorship – and its power.
Hewlett’s own career is an example of how sponsorship helps and absence of sponsorship hurts. She grew up in a Welsh coal mining community, with five sisters, and wouldn’t have been expected to have the career she has had, now heading a global think tank on careers based in New York. But she broke free of her heritage and gained entrance to Cambridge University, thanks to an English teacher who believed in her potential and intensively prepared her for the critical level exams. In her early months on campus she gained another sponsor: One of her professors, Jean Grove, took Hewlett under her wing and chose her as a research assistant despite her tender years.
Later, however, Hewlett’s career hit a miserable, apparent dead end when she failed to gain tenure at Barnard. She seemed to be doing everything right, with many supporters and mentoring relationships with several close female colleagues. But tellingly, one of them who was particularly close and might have seemed helpful in nudging Hewlett’s career forward, historian Annette Baxter, lacked clout at the university and any influence in the economics department where Ms. Hewlett worked. No sponsors, no tenure.
Adrift after the tenure decision, expected to leave the university, someone she had met through her teaching rescued her and became a sponsor. Harvey Picker, the dean of the School of International Affairs at Columbia University, figured she would make an excellent head of the Economic Policy Council. He opened the door for her, and a month later she won the job. Without a sponsor, she had bombed at Barnard. Now she was chugging along again.
In researching sponsors and mentors, her think tank learned that 70 percent of sponsored men and 68 percent of sponsored women feel they are progressing through the ranks at a satisfactory pace, compared to 57 percent of their unsponsored peers. Eight-five percent of mothers employed full time who have sponsors stay in their careers, compared to only 58 percent of the non-sponsored. For professionals of colour, those with sponsors are 65 percent more likely to be satisfied with their rate of advancement.
Just as we’re told to scout for mentors, you need to scout for sponsors. They may start helping serendipitously, but it pays for you to be actively on the prowl. She suggests considering not just the person you report to but also who your boss reports to. You want sponsors with, as she puts it, juice. They should have the influence, power, and voice at decision-making tables to boost you. “You’ll know a potential sponsor by his or her actions, which include connecting you to key people or clients, giving you stretch assignments, offering critical feedback, and promoting your visibility within the firm or within their networks,” she advises.
So put efficacy ahead of affinity. You may have some role models, but they may not have the juice to be an effective sponsor. Friends could also make lousy sponsors. A sponsor is a strategic ally and the relationship instrumental. That may not work well with a friend.
She also warns not to be put off by your potential sponsor’s leadership style, if it seems less than perfect. You need to respect your sponsor; you’re not out to be exactly like him or her. “Your target may exercise authority in a way you don’t care to copy, but it’s his clout, not his style, that will turbocharge your career,” she says.
She advises you to get in front of would-be sponsors. Ask your manager for a stretch assignment that might put you in the line of sight of the target, for example. Or request a meeting with the target to seek career development advice. Attend networking events and conferences where you may be able to connect with the potential sponsor.
And don’t be content with just one sponsor. She suggests distributing your risk by having more than one. After all, the single sponsor could leave the organization or lose his or her power after a management shuffle or just get too busy to help. In a large organization, you want two within the organization – one in your line of sight and one in a different department or division – as well as one outside the outfit.
The book has lots of advice that can be useful in cultivating and benefiting from a sponsor, including how to handle the gossip and sexual element that can arise when a man and woman work closely together and one gives an obvious boost to the other’s career. But it all comes down to one message: Forget a mentor, find a sponsor.