The Leadership Basics

Leadership – What is Sponsoring?

Sponsors are statistically the most important external influence on your career. Someone who literally talks about you and your ability, without you being in the room. Of course, they need to have positions of influence and opportunity themselves to be able to share with those they sponsor.

This is the key ingredient that many people born in the right swim lane have over those who were born in the tougher swim lanes. They have sponsors in high places who make sure they have opportunities to move quickly up the career ladder.

That said, everyone can seek and build sponsors if they’re conscious of the benefits and planned around getting sponsors. Great leaders sponsor great talent. They literally pull them up the ladder by making sure they’re spoken about very positively, have the right development opportunities presented to them, and that promotions and new roles are available.

It will quickly become apparent as to which leaders are sponsoring talent and which are not. Those who sponsor and actively support their best people – by putting their own reputations on the line for individuals on their team – will be the sorts of leaders everyone will want to work for. And this grows over time. Which is why people follow leaders across businesses, even geographies, to ensure they’re staying on a great sponsor’s watch or radar. If you want great talent, you have to throw as much sponsorship as you can behind as many of them as you can, in as many ways as you can.

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Really good sponsors do more than speak behind closed doors about the people they sponsor. They also find ways to frame up tough feedback, and step back into a coaching role as well. They hear any constructive feedback, and make sure the person they’re sponsoring is hearing it too, and doing something with it.

So, the way to become a great sponsor is to be a great coach, a great mentor and a great sponsor, all at the same time. The best sponsors are moving between the three roles as required to best help develop and build an individual’s career.

Sponsorship is one of the real differentiators between senior leaders, and part of the reason why some CEOs and senior leaders attract and retain great diverse talent, and others don’t. The great CEOs and leaders who sponsor are seen as more than “talking the talk”. They’re actually ensuring that great talent, and often diverse talent, has every opportunity to get the right opportunities and roles to make it to the top.

© 2017 All rights reserved
mwah. making work absolutely human

Again, expertise is all about practice. And more practice. And more practice.

And most importantly, about results.  What does it take to sponsor someone to success? Work out that formula and then practice and practice until you’ve had a very positive impact on as many people – particularly diverse people – as possible.

Of course, like all great leadership skills, sponsoring can be an art as well. Great sponsors aren’t blindly and one-sidedly supporting an individual. Instead, they’re speaking to their strengths and developments, but in a way that means everyone in the room gets to know the person and support their development.

Going in too hard to sponsor someone will just see peers or others reminding you, loudly, of development areas. The conversation becomes a battle, and everyone walks away remembering the negative. An experienced sponsor is careful to be measured and honest, while not losing sight of specific goals; a development opportunity, a small promotion, or exposure to an important network. You could say great sponsors play it cool, and end up pulling up a whole cohort of talent behind them. 

Again, when we talk diversity, there is usually a very clear public reputation across a diverse community on who sponsors well and who doesn’t. It isn’t about who talks the talk, but rather who walks the walk, and ensures that cohorts of diverse talent move forward, and move forward quite quickly. Interestingly, they often sponsor way beyond their own business or company. For example, if you find a great sponsor for women, you’ll find them sponsoring women across the whole industry, not just in the one business where they work.

If you’re recommending to a person that they seek and develop sponsors, it’s also best to recommend more than one. Everyone has been in the situation where they were sponsored by the person who retired, or left, or didn’t get the CEO gig they expected. If you have three or four sponsors you mitigate the realities of changeovers in leadership, moves of senior talent, and unexpected opportunities in the wrong company. With three or four, there’s a lot of people who have the individual on their radar, and it’s actually quite hard for that individual not to be successful.

The other way to build expertise in sponsoring is to speak to people who are great sponsors, and learn from them. In every company, in every city, in every industry, there will be a few people who are known as great sponsors. Call them. Ask for time for a coffee. How do they sponsor? What is their advice on how to sponsor well?

And finally, reading helps too. Here’s some suggestions to get you started:

Xplore is a great company that works in the gender diversity space and very much talks up the value of sponsorship. This is a great little article about the difference between mentoring and sponsorship.

And a Forbes article about getting mentoring and sponsorship to add value

And an article about sponsorship and diversity, and why it has such a great impact in the diversity agenda.

© 2017 All rights reserved
mwah. making work absolutely human

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