Seven steps to building effective sponsorship relationships

3 minute read

We know that having a sponsor makes a big difference to your career, but did you know that being a sponsor is just as important? Sponsorship not only contributes to a leader’s ability to leave a lasting legacy but, says economist and author Sylvia Ann Hewlett, also improves your chances of promotion

Sponsoring in work

All leaders need a protégé: someone who can increase their bandwidth, have their back and provide a substantial value add. But it’s not just a nice-to-have. Senior managers with protégés are 53% more likely to have received a promotion while middle-level managers with protégés are 1.6 times more likely to have received a stretch assignment.

According to economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of The Sponsor Effect: How to be a better leader by investing in others, sponsorship is a professional relationship in which an established or rising leader identifies and chooses an outstanding junior talent, develops that person’s career and reaps significant rewards for these efforts. Sounds like mentorship? Well yes, but, says Hewlett, it is much deeper and more rewarding, requiring commitment and investment by both sponsor and protégé rather than just ‘paying it forward’ by grooming someone to rise higher.

In other words, it is a longer term and more reciprocal relationship. The sponsor believes in, and takes a bet on, the more junior star. They advocate for the next promotion and provide ‘air cover’ to take the risks that success often demands. Meanwhile, the protégé is a high-achieving employee who, at a minimum, outperforms (or as Hewlett says, “contributes 110%”), is trustworthy and loyal and contributes added value. And the protégé needs to take an active role: 70% of the relationship building should be done by that person.

Hewlett’s research supports the value of sponsorship on the protégé’s career. Male employees with a sponsor are 23% more likely to progress up the ladder than those without while female employees with a sponsor are 19% more likely to progress. However, her research finds that men are 46% more likely to have a sponsor than women while Caucasians are 63% more likely than people of other ethnicities.

For sponsors the rewards are equally beneficial. Among the managers and executives surveyed by Hewlett, 39% of those with a protégé́ are satisfied with their professional legacy, as opposed to 25% of those without.

However, most self-identified sponsors are not doing a great job at it, says Hewlett. “They are leaving significant value on the table.”

So what should you be doing to be more effective? Here are Hewlett’s seven steps:

  1. Identify potential protégés
    Know what to look for in the talent you’re considering sponsoring, starting with performance and loyalty
  2. Include diverse perspectives
    Find those who are different from you – in their mindset and viewpoints, or in their gender, age, ethnicity, experience or background
  3. Inspire for performance and loyalty
    Ensure that your protégés’ values align with yours, and use their ambitions to spur the forward
  4. Instruct to fill skills gaps
    Work with your protégés to develop where they need to grow, whether that’s in knowledge or soft skills
  5. Inspect your prospects
    Keep an eye on your protégés to ensure that they’re continuing to deliver in performance and, most importantly, loyalty
  6. Instigate a deal
    Know when to make the ask, specifying the details of your relationship with your protégés
  7. Invest in three ways
    Work on your protégés’ behalf by endorsing them, advocating for them and providing air cover when they need it

Sponsorship is an investment that starts paying out benefits early. But there are some common mistakes to avoid. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of breakdowns in the sponsorship relationship hinge on lack of loyalty resulting from a failure to ‘inspect’ and vet the protégé, while only 23% of sponsors look for a protégé who has attributes and skills they do not have, instead preferring a ‘mini-me’. Meanwhile there is a failure to sponsor protégés of a different gender – 40% of men fear gossip and lawsuits in this #MeToo era, says Hewlett.

If done well, sponsorship will enable you to rise higher than you might otherwise have gone and will help you leave a legacy. Wherever you sit in the organisation, it is good to have a trusted protégé to take over the reins when you move. Not only is that good for the organisation and you, but it is also extremely rewarding.

As Hewlett says: “For any rising or established leader it’s best to have three such junior stars to maximise your agency and impact. Your protégés should benefit enormously from the investments you make in them – and so should the enterprise. And you have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve helped deserving younger talent rise to the top.”

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, pictured below, is author of The Sponsor Effect: How to be a better leader by investing in others, available now.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett

Published 3 October 2019
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