Here’s What You Really Need to Advance Your Career

6 minute read

This post is in partnership with The Muse. The article below was originally published on The Muse.

If you want to advance your career, having a mentor isn’t enough anymore. Don’t get me wrong—mentors are wonderful. They help you gain critical skills, navigate you through challenges at work, and offer a sounding board when you’re at a crossroads in your career. But if you aspire to climb higher in this modern and competitive climate, you’ll need a sponsor as well.

In the article, “Why You Need a Sponsor—Not a Mentor—to Fast-Track Your Career,” for Business Insider, author Jenna Goudreau says, “Four recent studies clearly show that sponsorship—not mentorship—is how power is transferred in the workplace.”

As a general manager in the medical devices industry once described to me, “A sponsor is someone who will use his or her internal political and social capital to move your career forward within an organization. Behind closed doors, he or she will argue your case.” Millette Granville, Director of Diversity and Inclusion with Delhaize America described a sponsor as “an influential spokesperson for what you are capable of doing.”

But what’s the difference between a mentor and a sponsor? Heather Foust-Cummings, a vice president with Catalyst Research Center for Equity in Business Leadership, explained it this way: “A mentor will talk with you, but a sponsor will talk about you.”

My friend and Twitter buddy Cate Huston explains it this way: “Mentors give you perspective while sponsors give you opportunities.”

Mentors help you “skill up,” whereas sponsors help you move up. Having the support of a sponsor is like having a safety net, allowing you to confidently take risks like asking for a stretch assignment or a promotion. They provide a protective bubble and can shield you from organizational change like reorganizations or layoffs. And they bring your name up in those high-level talent development discussions that take place behind closed doors. If your career is moving forward, chances are there’s a sponsor behind the scenes, pulling strings on your behalf.

So, how do you get a sponsor? Well, the catch is, that’s not how it typically works—you don’t get to choose the sponsor; the sponsor almost always chooses you.

In a series of reports on sponsorship, Catalyst reported, “There is no ‘silver bullet’ for attracting the attention of a high-level sponsor”—and that’s certainly true. However, through my 15 years of experience coaching emerging leaders to advance their careers, I have recognized that there are certain behaviors that can swing the odds in your favor and make it more likely that a sponsor will choose and advocate for you.

Here are six steps you can take to attract the attention of an influential sponsor:

1. Perform

Great performance must come first. You can’t expect a sponsor to advocate for you and put his or her own reputation on the line to speak up on your behalf if you’re not going above and beyond in your role.

2. Know Who the Good Sponsors Are

This can be tricky, but see if you can identify the leaders in your organization who have a track record of being talent developers and talent scouts. For example, listen for leaders who publicly praise subordinates, back them up on contentious issues, and offer challenging assignments to up-and-comers who have not yet proven themselves. That’s who you want on your side.

3. Raise Your Hand for Exposure Opportunities

You can’t expect a sponsor to put his or her reputation on the line when he or she doesn’t know the quality of your work and what you’re capable of. So, look for a special project working directly for one of the potential sponsors you identified in the previous step, or try to join special task forces or committees he or she serves on. Your goal here is for the sponsor to see you in action and directly experience the quality of work you can deliver.

4. Make Your Value Visible

Whatever you do, don’t be the best-kept secret in the organization! Once you achieve something noteworthy, make your achievements visible to your leaders.

For example, if you bump into a potential sponsor the cafeteria line, ask how he or she is doing. Chances are he or she will ask you the same, so have a ready-to-share sound bite about a recent accomplishment, so you can respond, “I’m doing well. I just heard I’ve been nominated for engineer of the year!”

And re-write your elevator speech so that every time you introduce yourself, you’ll be showcasing your leadership skills and the value you add to your organization. (Here’s how.)

5. Have Clear Career Goals

You must have clarity about your career goals! There’s little chance a sponsor is going to know what opportunities to match you with if you don’t even know what you want for yourself.

6. Share Your Career Goals With Your Leaders

This is the clincher. If you are a demonstrated high performer and have clear career goals, sharing those goals with your manager, your mentors, and leaders can often be enough to enlist their sponsorship.

A final word of advice comes from Granville, who says, “Sponsorship can come to you in different ways. You never know who is watching you, so be ‘sponsor-ready’ at all times.”

So what are you waiting for? Use these six items as a checklist to determine what action to take, and go grab the attention of an influential sponsor!

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