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Advance Your Career with a Sponsor

Advance Your Career with a Sponsor

In today’s world of work, you need to get into the career game and redefine your distinguishing strengths and value-add so you can be seen, heard, and considered for the new opportunities you seek. Adjust the career lens through which you see the world. It’s time to get into the driver’s seat and be strategic about how you navigate new opportunities.

In most cases, your boss is not spending time pondering how they can grow or promote you. They are busy doing their own work. If you are a high-performing colleague, you may be left alone because you don’t cause trouble. If you seek a career transition, promotion, or new opportunity – you must take charge of your professional future.

Mentorship vs. Sponsorship.

Mentors can provide you with wisdom and encouragement, but sponsors put their professional reputation on the line to advocate for your advancement and use their power and influence on your behalf.

You can’t ask for a sponsor – you must do great work and be recognized by someone who sees your potential. Sponsors seek you out because of your results-oriented work, attitude, and professional value.

Sponsors empower you to make bold moves, whether it’s a pay raise, a promotion, or a plum assignment, and people who ask for these benefits are much more likely to get them. If you feel like your career has plateaued, or that you’re being overlooked for opportunities, a sponsor can help.

Jenna Goudreau, a writer forBusiness Insider, noted:

Four U.S.-based and global studies clearly show that sponsorship — not mentorship — is how power is transferred in the workplace.

[Related: The Nine Types of People You Need in Your Success Circle]

Identifying potential sponsors.

Begin by identifying influencers. Whom do you admire and seek to emulate based on their achievements or behavior in the career world? Consider the people you know as well as those whom you aspire to know.

First, be clear about what makes you unique and valuable in a career. You must have clarity about what you have to offer and what you seek before you begin meeting with influencers. Consider the narrative you want to share. Keep it pithy and compelling. This is the story an influencer may use to describe you when you are not present.

Next, be clear about your future goals or areas of interest. Specificity is key. If an influencer becomes a sponsor, they must have clarity about how they can help you. If you are still fuzzy about future goals, spend time with a career coach, or someone in your circle of trust to gain clarity about what you want and the support you need to get there.

Spectrum of support.

Herminia Ibarra wrote about a new way to think about sponsorship in a Harvard Business Review article that illustrates a spectrum of different degrees of support.

  • Mentor: Provides, advice, support, or coaching.
  • Strategizer: Shares inside information about advancing; helps you strategize to get ahead.
  • Connector: Makes introductions to influential people; talks you up with their peers.
  • Opportunity giver: Provides high-visibility support.
  • Advocate: Publicly advocates promotion; fights for you in settings where you can’t fight for yourself.

Take a risk.

Stop letting fear control your willingness to take a risk and try something new. Know that you can always fail forward and learn from every experience. You won’t achieve your full potential if you always play it safe, so expand your comfort zone and challenge yourself with something different. Think about the countless organizations, inventions, and advancements in our world that we would not have if courageous people weren’t willing to fail.

A sponsor may consider you for a role or organization that is very different from where you are now. Be open to change and new possibilities, since growth requires stepping away from your comfort zone.

[Related: Five Steps Women Can Take to Self-Advocate]

Enhance your elevation opportunities.

Is your current professional posse lacking motivation or the desire to achieve great things? Chances are you will set your professional bar at the same level as your contemporaries, so align yourself with the like-minded people and amazing things will happen.

The law of attraction helps us connect with the very people who can assist us with achieving our goals. You must be clear about how you position yourself for success. Circulate with people who challenge, stimulate, and inspire you to do your very best. Then pay it forward and help elevate someone else.

Toot your own professional horn.

The ideal professional persona projects ability without attitude, since nobody appreciates a bragger who has gone to the dark side of obnoxious. However, humility won’t land you the job or the promotion, so you must talk about the accomplishments you have earned with humble confidence.

Be ready to talk about your strengths and accomplishments, and not just during the interview or the performance evaluation. Have your stories at the ready to illustrate your skills with specific examples so it feels conversational and relaxed. Own what you have done and accept the credit you deserve instead of always applauding your team to take the spotlight off you. You must learn to be your own best self-advocate and speak articulately about your accomplishments – especially with sponsors who can help you move forward.

Pay it forward.

I am grateful to the many mentors, influencers, sponsors, connectors, strategizers, and advocates who have helped me forge my career path. I take great responsibility in helping others, as I have been helped to keep the virtuous circle of support ongoing. Consider who in your network needs support and how you might lend a helping hand.

We have the power to help create transformative relationships. Find someone who can be your catalyst for growth and ask for help.

Career elevation is not a secret formula, but simply a way for us to leverage relationships and expertise to serve as equalizers in the career world. You have the potential to elevate your career and the ability to elevate others. Bring it on!

[Related: How Men Benefit from Close Relationships with Women at Work]


Caroline Dowd-Higgins authored the book "This Is Not the Career I Ordered" and maintains the career reinvention blog of the same name. She is Vice President of Career Coaching and Employer Connections for the Ivy Tech Community College system and contributes to Thrive Global, Ellevate Network, Medium, and The Chronicle newspaper in Indiana. Her online video series about career and life empowerment for women is on YouTube. She hosts the three-time award winning podcast, Your Working Life, on iTunes, Spotify, and SoundCloud. Follow her on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and Twitter. Her TEDxWOMEN talk about reframing failure and defining success on your own terms is available on YouTube.

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