A sponsor is an influential advocate who believes in you, sees potential in you that’s unformed or untapped, and is willing to place a bet on you. They’re prepared to put their reputation on the line to publicly support you. It’s someone who Is in your corner and gives you “air cover” to take the types of risks that can lead to big career breakthroughs.
The best sponsors can see a vision for you and your career that is bigger than you could ever imagine. And due to their influence, sponsors can open more doors than you ever thought possible.
But here’s the sad truth of it: research has revealed that high-potential women are overmentored and undersponsored relative to their male peers, to the detriment of their careers. And only 8% of people of color have a sponsor compared to 13% of white employees. That’s why one of my favorite topics to speak about is how sponsorship works, how to attract the advocacy of those leaders that are passionate talent developers, and how organizations can distribute these opportunities more equitably.
Following my session on this topic for the Women Transforming Technology conference, I did a follow-up interview with Lisa Martin of The Cube. We spoke about what sponsorship is and how it’s different to mentorship, what sponsors need from you, and how to shift an organization’s culture around sponsorship to make it more transparent and fair.
I firmly believe that one of the best ways to understand how sponsorship works is to sponsor others, and there are a couple myths around this that Lisa and I discussed. The first is the mistaken belief that you have to be an executive to be a sponsor to others. You don’t…but you do need to have influence. The thing is, we all have influence (at any career stage) but don’t always use it to the full extent we could to advocate for others.
Next, we looked at the myth that sponsoring somebody must entail a grand gesture such as offering them a promotion, hand-tailored role, or high-profile assignment. Not true!“Microsponsorship” refers to taking small, yet meaningful actions that call attention to the performance of someone whose talent might be going unrecognized.
For example, you could:
• Make sure someone’s name stays attached to a great idea they came up with.
• Call out a colleague’s accomplishment that’s being overlooked. (Give more drumrolls!)
• Recommend her or him for an assignment that matches their potential, not just their past performance.
• Say “Let her finish” when someone’s being talked over.
These moments matter, because people who have been sponsored are more likely to sponsor others. Each time you use your voice to actively advocate for someone, you’re dropping a pebble into the sponsorship pond, and the ripples can be far-reaching.
One way to take a stand against racism and inequity at work is to examine who you’re advocating for. It’s no longer enough to be a mentor.
Do you see coworkers from underrepresented groups being overlooked, overmentored, and undersponsored? Can you switch your focus from mentorship to sponsorship? Whether it’s the large sponsorship gestures or microsponsorship moments, these actions add up and can contribute to creating a workplace’s culture where sponsorship is more accessible, for all.