Career

How a Sponsor Can Skyrocket Your Career

More than a mentor, a sponsor can help you build relationships, and advance your skills. Just be prepared to pay it back.

Anya Ranganathan, 24, was working at an investment bank in her first post-grad job. But it wasn’t her passion. She was still itching to get back to the food and beverage industry as a founder, after getting her feet wet with another startup in the sector back in college. 

She had been working on an idea for a company — and her tenacity would be noticed. “After a particularly difficult day at my previous job, I took a sick day and started making phone calls to all of the major produce distributors in my area for partnership opportunities,” she says. “Stefanie’s company, S Katzman Produce, a fresh produce wholesaler and distributor, expressed an interest in my startup. Ultimately, conversations led to me quitting my job, teaming up with Stefanie and piloting our concept.”

Of course, quitting your full-time job when you’re new to the workforce is intimidating. “A major concern of mine was transitioning from earning a finance salary to making no money at all in the early stages of a business,” says Ranganathan. “Stefanie provided me with a paid role in S Katzman Produce so I could, first, learn more about the mechanics of fresh produce delivery, and second, not have to deal with the stress of living in New York City with no income. Stefanie has helped me with my career development by creating an environment where I can take risks.”

Katzman is not only Ranganathan’s business partner at Bad Apple Produce, but also her sponsor — and allowing you to take risks in your career is among the three most important benefits of having one, according to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, economist, CEO of Hewlett Consulting Partners and author of The Sponsor Effect. “The most important functions of a sponsor are to believe in your value and be willing to use up political capital on your behalf, advocate for you in public and behind closed doors, and be ‘in your corner’ so that you can take risks,” she says. “In return, your job is to deliver stellar performance; offer reliability, commitment and trustworthiness; and provide a value-add to the sponsor — a skill set, a domain of knowledge or a piece of experience they don’t have.” (Ranganathan has e-commerce experience, where Katzman’s is in wholesale.)

The most important functions of a sponsor are to believe in your value and be willing to use up political capital on your behalf, advocate for you in public and behind closed doors, and be ‘in your corner’ so that you can take risks.

Sponsorship doesn’t just take place in entrepreneurship, though. It’s a critical part of excelling in the corporate world, too. 

Sponsorship is a bilateral relationship

Having a sponsor is sort of like a mentor in that it involves a senior-level person taking a junior-level person under their wing. Senior in their career, sponsors can be “key to direct advancement,” says Kim Perell, angel investor, tech CEO and author of The Execution Factor. Maybe your sponsor helps get your company funded, or they write the first check. Perhaps they go to bat for you when a promotion is on the line. “They can use their seniority, influence and connections and can make others aware of your accomplishments, achievements and potential as a leader and executive,” she explains.

But unlike mentorship, which is more of a “way to pay it forward,” guiding the legion of women who are fighting their way to recognition behind a boss, sponsorship is a bilateral relationship. “A sponsor believes in the value of a young employee and is willing to take a bet on them, using up political capital on the next big opportunity,” says Hewlett. “Sponsorship is an investment, and the sponsor expects a protege to contribute to the ‘deal’ with performance and loyalty.” 

Ultimately, in exchange for talking you up, a sponsor will expect you to be on their team — “to make them look good, to have their back, to advance their career, as well,” says Janice Fraser, a partner at SenecaVC. “Might have a benevolent intent, but ultimately people in positions of power typically create an army of followers,” she explains.

Unlike a mentorship, a sponsorship goes beyond the relationship. “A sponsor can be supportive in ‘fast tracking’ you for consideration for new opportunities, and driving awareness of your abilities and accomplishments,” Perell says. “Sponsors can advocate for you in meetings or conversations you may not be included in.”

If you’re going to be given a cool opportunity to lead a new team or something similar, most of the movement toward that is going to happen offstage. But of course, you have to find a sponsor who is willing to get you to offer support and take your career to the next level — which isn’t easy, as sponsorship has historically favored men who often gravitate toward those like themselves. 

Men still hold positions of power and influence in the working world, while research has shown that women — especially women of color — are underrepresented in every level of leadership and management, and that they lack access to sponsorship opportunities. “Women are 46 percent less likely to win sponsorship than men, and much less likely to be a sponsor than men,” says Hewlett.

Fraser cites evidence that men and women maintain separate social networks at work; the relationships tend to be less deep. “Men and women across that divide have a weaker tie,” she says. “Having a deep tie to those doing the elevating creates a real front-of-mind kind of thing.” It’s just “not as easy” for men to think of advancing a woman when “she’s just not in the room” often enough, says Fraser, as women fight bias and have difficulty advancing as quickly as men. 

On top of that, women who have managed to climb the ladder of leadership may not be as aware of sponsorship as they’ve faced other hurdles. Let’s say Executive Jane is in that meeting, and she’s being asked to put names forward for a promotion. “If she hasn’t grown with that concept of sponsorship, she is disincentivized to deploy that social capital,” says Fraser. “She doesn’t leave the room, and say, ‘Mary, I put your name in for the promotion. I just want you to know that I have your back.’” She’s not building the sort of relationship with women who will follow after her and cement her position at work.

How to find a sponsor

To break the remaining glass ceilings of parity in VC partnership, startup funding and senior-level management, it’s important that women be intentional with their efforts to land a sponsor, according to Fraser. “We’re at a moment where we can name what it is, and identify the person we are trending in that direction with,” she says. “You can go to that person and say, ‘I understand this is a thing. What would it take for me to earn this place with you?’”

It’s important to share your accomplishments and achievements, as well as your goals and what you want to achieve.

Perell says to look for senior-level employees whom you admire and reach out to them; these may be men, as well, and you’ll need to traverse the unnecessary homophilous barriers. “It could be someone in a department you’re in, or want to be in, or someone in a position to support you to achieve your goals,” she says. “You should try to identify several possible candidates who could be a sponsor.  It’s important to share your accomplishments and achievements, as well as your goals and what you want to achieve. Ask them for their input and feedback, and let them know if they could offer support, how much you would appreciate that.”  

Stay on your potential sponsor’s radar, too. “Be sure to follow up via email with a list of your accomplishments and how they can best help you,” says Perell. “Invest in getting to know your sponsor, following up with them and continually making them aware of what you’re doing. Ask if you can meet them for coffee once a quarter.  It’s your responsibility to own the success of that relationship by ensuring you make it easy for someone to sponsor and support you.” 

Be on the lookout for other forms of sponsorship, too. Fraser says she’s seeing more women, who are at a relatively similar place in their career, form alliances to boost each other’s success. Perhaps two entrepreneurs — a photographer, a wedding planner — refer clients to each other, increasing each other’s business. “It’s almost a form of sponsorship, from a feminist point of view,” she says. “Something like a lateral sponsor, or a peer sponsor; it’s about recognizing what you have to offer, and knowing you can be beneficial to each other.” In the absence of tons of high-level female leaders, this sort of “creative problem-solving” can be “huge and powerful.” 

And it’s often just a request away. Markman cites research by Vanessa Bohns and her colleagues, which suggests people are often more willing to help you than you think they are. “Make sure to ask your sponsor for opportunities to meet key people who can influence your future,” he says. “Be willing to ask others directly for what you want to advance your career.” 

It worked for Ranganathan, who landed herself a sponsor by cold-calling produce distributors she thought could help her; all she had to do was extend the line and ask.

Jenna Birch is a longtime journalist and author of The Love Gap (Grand Central Publishing, 2018). Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vogue, ELLE, Harper’s Bazaar, Man Repeller, The Washington Post and many more. Her weekly relationship column, ‘Between the Sheets’ runs every Tuesday on PureWow.