Forget Mentors. Find a Sponsor

Posted on November 10, 2014.

Notwithstanding that I’ve written more than once about the importance of being mentored, if you really want to get ahead, get a sponsor.  What’s the difference, you might ask?

A sponsor is someone with power and/or influence. He or she may or may not work in the same company, but they’re well connected.  A mentor is someone who’s great at coaching and giving feedback, can navigate the bureaucracy, and is usually well liked by people at your level.  Most of the time, they work within the same organization.

In my former life, of the 5 bosses I had in as many years, 3 of them had sponsors that included the CEO, President and another high-level Executive.  There are a few well-known sponsor/protégée parings as well.   Look at Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and former Treasury Secretary, Larry Summer. Or Steve Jobs and Marc Benioff, founder and CEO of salesforce.com, who once said, “if not for Steve Jobs, there would be no salesforce.com”. 

The words themselves may be interchangeable but a sponsor can, and will, accelerate your career, where a mentor many not.   So where and how do you find a sponsor? 

·      Start early and make an impression.  Sheryl Sandberg met Larry Summer as a junior in college where he was one of her professors. I don’t know how the relationship continued after graduation, but she impressed him enough that he took her under his wing.   The one boss I had who was sponsored and mentored by the CEO of the company led a high profile project early in his career.  He had only been with the company a brief time, but clearly caught the attention of the one person who helped him up the corporate ladder and  in lightning speed.  I have to believe that when Marc Benioff was with MacIntosh, he so impressed a young Steve Jobs that they created a lifelong bond.

·      Become politically savvy. If you’re not lucky enough to meet someone at college or get noticed early in your career, you need to be much more savvy about who has influence and power within your organization or network.  The onus is on you to help create situations where you can interact with your potential sponsor.  Sign up for a task force or volunteer to do the job no else wants to do.  After one of our mergers, one of my former bosses took on the role as the President’s sales manager.  To most of us, the job looked like a glorified executive assistant.  But that person is now one of the highest-level executives in the company.  She so impressed her boss that he ended up promoting her way ahead of others who were in line for the job.

I’ve heard a lot of negative chatter about people that get to the top.  You hear things like, “they wouldn’t be where they are today if it weren’t for so-and-so”.  And yes, there are many people that don’t deserve their positions.  But I know many more people that are super smart, do an excellent job and never get noticed or go anywhere because they never had a sponsor take notice.

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