Whenever I discuss sponsors and mentors, people are often confused as to how the two differ. Mentors give advice and makes suggestions, while sponsors create career opportunities. Mentors discuss your problems, while sponsors push you to strive for more. Sponsors invest their own reputations to help you grow and develop, and they believe in your potential — often more than you believe in yourself.
Having a sponsor can be a transformative professional relationship that can bridge the gap between where you are and where you aspire to be within a company. As someone who has benefited from the support of sponsors — and who now sponsors emerging leaders — I want to share why this relationship is critical. Here’s how sponsors can benefit women’s careers and how you can find someone to sponsor you.
How can sponsors help your career?
I’ve had several sponsors, people who believed in me and advanced my career in significant ways. Most of my sponsors started as my manager or my manager’s manager. My first was a vice president of product at PayPal. She trusted me — a relatively new product manager — to help lead the integration between PayPal and eBay. That opportunity that enabled me to eventually lead PayPal’s eBay product team even though I had only a few years of product management experience. Time and time again, she opened doors and accelerated my career.
At Facebook, one of my biggest advocates was my former manager. He never doubted my potential — even when I wasn’t so sure of myself. He invested his time to help me grow, and he gave me opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible. He helped me find my way at Facebook, and I credit a lot of my success to his faith in me.
I benefited greatly from these relationships. Now, I return the favor and sponsor both women and men. I put their names forward for new opportunities in the office and encourage them to take on roles that they may believe beyond their reach. And at times, I help resolve conflicts or challenges that may stand in their way and give them hard feedback to make sure they see their blind spots. I see my role as a mix of a mentor, supporter and motivator.
Why don’t more women have sponsors?
I know I’m not alone in benefiting from having and being a sponsor. Career sponsorship can increase the ability to land a raise or a stretch assignment by 30%, according to research by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the author of Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor. But Hewlett also found that men are 46% more likely than women to have a career sponsor. Further, a 2008 study by Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on advancing women’s careers, found that women are more likely to have mentors than their male counterparts — but mentorship often doesn’t have the same impact on an individual’s career as sponsorship.
Sponsors are more senior in the organization, typically one or two levels up in the organizational chart. They find junior people they connect with and look for ways to offer support, whether that’s recommending them for a promotion or advocating for them to get a big assignment. But sponsorship is more than a one-sided relationship: sponsors can receive recognition within the company for identifying and growing new talent.
That means that sponsors often risk their reputation for those they help. Naturally, that means that sponsors look for people who most remind them of themselves. Because we know that men make up over 60% of management-level positions, those men are more likely to sponsor other young men.
So how can you find a sponsor?
Finding a sponsor can be challenging, because it requires mutual trust and respect. It’s not something you can simply ask of someone you don’t know.
- Build a relationship. Because sponsors advocate for you, your successes will be their successes — and your failures will be their failures. Find someone that you feel comfortable spending time with and respect.
- Earn trust. They need to trust that their investments in you are warranted. Look for someone you trust — whether that’s your direct manager or another employee higher up in the company who you have some sort of relationship with — and ask for advice on how to grow.
- Ask for feedback.Show you’re willing to hear feedback and acknowledge your weaknesses. Prove that the energy and time they spend on you will be worthwhile.
- Close the loop. Demonstrate how their feedback changed how you approach problems or situations.
- Be ready to take on new challenges. There will come a point where your sponsor will give you an opportunity that is beyond your immediate skills. Step up, say yes, and deliver.
You’ll know if you have a true sponsor if they are pushing you towards new opportunities and stretch assignments. They will believe you are more capable of taking on new things than you ever imagined. The most frustrating thing for a sponsor is when they create an opportunity for you, and you refuse to take it. Instead, embrace the challenge and prove yourself worthy of their trust.
A sponsor identifies doors, opens them and ushers people through. I’m grateful to those who did that for me, and I look for ways to pay it forward. My hope is that as more women early in their careers seek out potential sponsors, they’ll find them among those who have benefited from this relationship. This will ensure we grow the next generation of women leaders.
Deb Liu is the VP of Facebook Marketplace.
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