Getting the endorsement of someone with real influence goes a long way—whether you’re proclaimed the Queen’s diamond of the season in Bridgerton or you’re given a stellar recommendation to take on an important project at work.
It’s hard to admit that we can’t succeed in our careers on our own. But the truth is we often need some guidance and support, especially when we start a new job or enter a new industry. That’s why so many of us have our eyes peeled for potential mentors to turn to for career advice.
But your biggest advocate in any workplace might just be that person who champions you from behind closed doors. That’s right, someone who talks about you behind your back—but instead of your elementary school frenemy whispering mean things about you to the other kids on the playground, it’s a colleague who uses their clout to help you get ahead in your career.
That’s where sponsors come in. Here’s what you need to know about sponsorship, why it’s a professional relationship you should invest in, and how to find a sponsor in your network and establish a rapport with them.
What is sponsorship anyway, and how is it different from mentorship?
Sponsors are typically workplace decision makers who can vouch for you and pull strings behind the scenes. Their endorsement can result in big career gains, like promotions, raises, or bonuses—or help you land the kinds of opportunities that lead to those larger milestones, like spearheading a new project or taking on a plum assignment.
In other words, a sponsor is someone who has the power to push for your career growth at work. They might be a leader or someone who’s gained connections and influence during their tenure at the company—and they’re willing to stake their reputation on yours.
On the other hand, a mentor is someone who can help you navigate tricky work situations and give you career advice, but they don’t necessarily have the power or authority to directly intervene on your behalf. So while a mentor can guide you as you think about what your next career goal should be and how you might achieve it, a sponsor is someone who can tangibly make it happen.
“Mentors are the people who talk with you—they talk through things and try to figure out what’s next—and sponsors are those who talk about you,” says Kadia Tubman, managing editor for diversity, equity and inclusion at Insider, Inc., who’s had several sponsors throughout her career and is now responsible for ensuring all employees at her organization have equitable opportunities to grow their careers.
Your boss can be that person advocating for you, but sponsors don’t necessarily have to be your direct supervisor or someone in a managerial position; they just need the inclination, ability, credentials, and clout to help propel you forward by vouching for you. For example, a colleague who’s been at the company for a long time and whose opinion carries weight could recommend you for a new project or initiative.
“Sponsors take everything they know about you—everything they know you want to do, what you want to be—and they will use their voice for you in the room that you’re not in,” says Nicole Hughey, senior vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion at SiriusXM, and a longtime HR leader with experience in organizational development and employee training.
Sponsorships can spark naturally based on some kind of kinship—you went to the same university, you're members of the same professional organization, or you grew up in the same city—or interactions you have and connections you forge through your day-to-day work. Mentorships can also be informal relationships you strike up organically with someone, but many larger organizations are investing in formalized mentorship programs.
Though sponsorships are critical for career advancement, according to a report in the Academic Medicine Journal, these relationships remain out of reach for some. Recent research found that while 20% of white employees have sponsors in their careers, only 5% of Black employees said the same.
Hughey believes companies need to implement formal sponsorship programs to give women and people of color equitable opportunities to advance and thrive. “People of color don’t have ready access to those that might be their sponsor, so assigning them in a formal program gives them that opportunity,” she says—that pivotal chance “to be the person that’s being talked about in a positive way behind closed doors.”
How to identify a potential sponsor and establish a relationship with them
Now that you know the difference between a mentor and sponsor—and the value of each of these professional relationships—here are 10 tips to help you find a potential sponsor.
1. Work hard and prove yourself first.
You might be eager to scope out a sponsor as soon as you start a new job or enter a new stage in your career. But Tubman says you need to do the work first so you have accomplishments and contributions that will get a prospective sponsor excited about your potential.
“Don’t skip steps,” Tubman says. “You need a good reputation because the sponsor is going to be staking theirs on you.”
Although a sponsor can lend their voice to make you more visible to other decision makers at the company, your performance at work should be strong enough to speak for itself, says Muse career coach Angela Smith. “At the end of the day, they can say your name as many times as they can, but if you’re not bringing the goods to back it up, it doesn’t really matter,” she says.
2. Look for someone who’s shown they’re supportive.
One good lead on potential sponsors across the company? See who’s going out of their way to support others and raise them up. “Do they speak up about other people? Do you hear them shouting out or giving props to other people?” Tubman says. “You should hear them really advocating for folks, and that could be in a meeting, in passing, or it could be at a town hall or even in an email.”
If someone in your organization is advocating for others publicly, chances are they’re willing to do so in private conversations as well. They’re probably a keen observer and a team player known for cultivating positive, productive relationships.
3. Pick someone who sees your work.
Focus on “someone who has seen you in action” and has some level of insight and visibility into your work, Smith says. If they already know you and are aware of your accomplishments, it’s easier to approach them and ask for their help and sponsorship.
4. Make sure they can listen.
A good sponsor has the influence to talk you up—but they also need to be a good listener so they know exactly how to best wield their power to help you achieve your goals.
Communication is a two-way street, Hughey says, and you need someone who can listen and take in what you’re saying in a productive way. “You want someone that’s going to listen and give you guidance based on what you need, not what they think you need,” she says.
So when speaking with a potential sponsor, ask yourself: Does this person ask me thoughtful questions? Do they have a clear understanding of my goals?
5. Check if they actually have the capacity.
Most importantly, a potential sponsor should have time and availability. Although your department’s vice president may be an appealing option, for example, they may not have the time in their hectic schedule to sponsor you. If you find a sponsor who’s already advocating for others publicly, try to assess if they actually have the bandwidth to do the same for you.
“Time is sometimes sacred, so you want somebody that can give you the time that you need,” Hughey says. “So for instance, if you’re setting up a monthly catch-up and they cancel 10 of the 12 times, then that’s probably not the person for you.”
6. Define what you’re looking for from a sponsorship.
With sponsorship, there’s often a specific goal you need someone’s help to achieve, Smith says.
“Be super clear what the purpose is for wanting that sponsorship,” Smith says. “Is it someone who is going to help with career expansion or someone who is going to introduce you to new people or someone who can make a recommendation for something?”
Depending on what you’re looking for, you should also define what you’ll be specifically asking of the other person. “Give them an idea of what you’re envisioning: Is it a meeting every month or a phone call every couple of weeks? Is it a specific introduction to someone? Be clear about what the expectation of the sponsor would be,” Smith says.
7. Get a conversation started—and be ready to open up.
Once you’ve found someone who fits the criteria you’re looking for in a sponsor, start up a conversation—it could be on Slack, via email, or in person—and explain what you’re looking for, Hughey says. You can invite them to grab a coffee or book time on their calendar for a virtual meeting.
“You can be open, direct, and gracious when making the ask,” Hughey says. “Send them an email telling them why you want to learn more about their career path and their work.” You can also tell them up front that you’re looking for advice and an advocate who can help you move forward in your career. If these initial conversations go well, you can ask if you can establish regular check-ins to keep building on that bond.
The initial approach and conversation may look and sound very similar to how you might reach out to a mentor, Smith adds. So you might start by asking them, “How did you get where you are? What career experiences have been helpful? What would you recommend for me?” Smith says. “And then you can make a formal ask, once you’ve had an opportunity to feel it out.”
At the end of the day, you’re trying to build a relationship with another human being, so don’t treat it like a purely transactional situation, Smith says. And like other relationships, it requires some vulnerability. “If [you’re] not willing to open up and share with somebody what you want out of your career, nobody’s ever going to know,” Hughey says.
8. Remember sponsorship might present itself organically.
Although you want to be proactive and seek out a sponsor, you may just have one come your way. Maybe a good work relationship with a peer or senior colleague leads them to start acting like a sponsor and advocating for you organically.
“Sometimes that kind of relationship just shows up,” says career coach Mary Blalock. “Use your instincts on what that relationship is shaping up to be.”
Hughey says that sometimes a sponsorship can sprout from a mentor relationship you have. “I would encourage you to ask your mentor to become a sponsor by speaking up on your behalf in rooms that they may have access to that you don’t,” she says. “Tell them about a promotion or job you want to be put up for; you can always make it easier by giving them proof points or examples to help speak on your behalf, but after spending time with you as your mentor, they’ll have their own unique POV on how to advocate for you, too.”
9. Follow through to build trust and demonstrate gratitude.
A sponsor is investing time and energy into helping you in your career. So you should show that you’re just as invested by following through on any actionable advice or steps they provide.
For example, if you approach a potential sponsor and ask for help landing a new role and they suggest you should take a specific certificate program to bolster your skills, do it and then follow up with them to show that you were successful with what they told you to do, Blalock says.
“That establishes trust,” she says. “That really deep trust makes that person want to make a commitment to you.”
10. Don’t fret if things don’t click.
Sometimes things just don’t work out—and that’s OK! It could be because your schedules don’t align or your personalities and communication styles don’t mesh well. Whatever the case might be, you don’t have to force it.
“Workplace relationships change and grow,” Hughey says. “Most folks that mentor and sponsor understand that sometimes things just don’t connect.”
How to find and reach out to a mentor
Mentoring can take a variety of forms. The most traditional way to find a mentor is to look for someone in a role you hope to be in one day. They could also be someone you have a lot in common with. Once you’ve identified a mentor, be specific about what you’re looking for, just as you would with a sponsor. And to make the relationship seamless, be respectful of their time and offer gratitude by taking an interest in their life.
Even professional relationships aren’t meant to last forever.
The biggest misconception about mentors and sponsors in the workplace is that these are meant to be lifelong (or careerlong) relationships—and that’s just not true. As your career evolves and grows, so will your network of mentors and sponsors.
“Sometimes these relationships come to an end,” Hughey says. “They’re there for a season, and that’s fine.”