Sponsorship is an important mechanism for advancing the careers of junior employees. But it’s not just a one-way relationship where everyone goes from sponsor to sponsee. What sponses bring to the relationship is, in fact, just as important – if not more important – than what sponsors do. This article describes six of the most important qualities of successful sponsees.
As companies ramp up initiatives to promote unknown talent, many anchor their efforts in matching top performers with senior sponsors. As we recently wrote in “What Big Sponsors Do Differently,” sponsors are full-fledged advocates who spend the political capital of their spouses. How sponsors go about their jobs can make a huge difference in the success of this important relationship – but to make the most of it, the sponsors themselves have an even more important role to play.
In the regular work we do with companies to plan and implement sponsorship initiatives, we observe that the most successful sponsors do six key things.
1. They are smart and well prepared.
Sponsor-sponsee relationships often develop during scheduled meetings. The quality of these sessions depends on the preparation that goes into them. Successful sponsors drive the relationship, knowing that sponsors are often short on time. They do their homework, reading their sponsor’s published material online (including social-media posts). They arrive to schedule the meeting, then present an agenda that may include a review of the challenges they are seeking, thoughtful questions about the sponsor’s own experiences, or a next step they thought. As the relationship deepens, the sponses collect feedback about themselves to show a fuller picture of their impact and opportunities. In a formal program, they may also invite the sponsor to speak directly with their manager.
2. They give their advocates clear and concrete direction.
Sponsors are people of action. They don’t just tell you the forecast of your career; they make the right time for you. But they can’t do that without knowing how. The most effective sponsors give their sponsors clear direction on how to support them. They spend time pondering the various steps a sponsor can take for them. If they have a personal development plan, they share it.
We see some sponses that are out of season because they equate having a sponsor with looking for a promotion. That’s a missed opportunity. Good sponsors understand that sponsorship involves a wide spectrum of actions that may ultimately result in promotion but do not necessarily mean it. Knowing that there are different ways to help allows respondents to get support for growth within the current role.
As such, sponses need no assurance in the air about their ambition. When respondents are concerned that they don’t have a clear vision for their next step, we try to help them understand that they still have more to do. One sponsee we worked with, for example, completed a SWOT analysis for his current role. Another created a deck for his sponsor outlining his contributions. Another focused on creating a list of leaders he hoped to add to his network.
To help sponsors come up with ways their sponsors can help them, one of us (Rachel) posed this set of questions to get them thinking:
- What skills do you want or need to develop to advance in your career? What experiences or opportunities do you want or need to have?
- What feedback would you like from your sponsor (anything from tactical strategy to next steps in your role to a difficult conversation you need to have)?
- What obstacles might be holding you back from advancing in your career? How can they be reduced?
- What role or opportunity might be right for you, but you don’t think you’re ready for it? What does it take, in your opinion, to be prepared?
- Who are the leaders you want to connect with, share your impact with or possibly work with in the future?
Answering these questions will help sponsors better prepare to ask sponsors what they need. At the end of the day, sponsors can’t act for their sponsors if they don’t know how.
3. They work to make a good impression but also remain authentic.
Skilled sponsors walk a line between projecting excellence sponsors want to invest and revealing ways they still need help. They present many sides of themselves – the successful self and the self that is working on improvement. It’s a tightrope for underrepresented groups, whose skills gaps and missteps are scrutinized more harshly than others.
One sponsee we know was placed in two development programs, then given more scope in his role without headcount. Tied up by work calls during his vacation, he lacks two hours to think about career growth and emotional reserve to take new risks. But he kept his sponsor in the dark, worried that he would judge him for a lack of sangfroid. When the sponsee opened up, he coached him to approach his manager with a deck that laid out the way forward. Sponsor support, both empathic and tactical, creates space for development conversations. His honesty opened the door.
4. They value what their sponsor is best equipped to contribute.
Few relationships are a perfect or easy match, nor are their benefits obvious from the first few meetings. Successful sponsors work hard to avoid making snap judgments about their sponsors such as “We have nothing in common,” “I can’t learn from him, we’re too different,” or “He’ll never get me.” .” The best spongers manage their expectations, remain curious, and intuitively understand that what people offer them will be shaped by what they are open to receiving.
A sponsee we know expressed concern about a match to a sponsor, because before he was matched, he had prickly human interactions during meetings. In a new context, the sponsor surprised him with a different vibe. Another sponsee is concerned that his sponsor is too green in the company to influence or expand his network. In their first meeting, he learned that he was facing the same challenges in his last company that he is facing now. He gets a front-row seat to the tactical lessons one has already learned.
5. They build a wide and diverse developmental network.
The mythology of sponsorship is not unlike romance: We think there is an ideal sponsor match – “the one” – out there for us to find. Larger esponses rejected that idea and instead pursued a pragmatic strategy of building a network of developmental relationships. They know that we go back and forth and get value from many connections over time, and sometimes we discover a connection where and when we least expect it.
Building a wide network is especially important if your sponsor is different from you. For example, women may value the perspective of female sponsors who are coping with gender stereotyping or juggled work and family. But in many organizations the sponsors who understand you, and those who can pull you up the ranks, are not one and the same. That’s why it’s important — and realistic — to seek support and perspective from a whole network of people.
An important part of that network is the sponsee peer group, especially in formal programs that bring together participants. We find that when sponsors use their peers as sounding boards and benchmarks, they are more courageous in developing their relationships with their sponsors. It’s easier to strategize how to work with sponsors if you can talk to your peers about how they handle similar challenges and opportunities.
6. They seek to increase the value of their sponsor.
It is limited to think that the benefits of a sponsorship relationship run mostly downstream, from the sponsor to the sponsee. To begin with, good sponsors understand that sponsors benefit when they are seen as talent spotters and talent developers. They know that their reputation will reflect – positively or negatively – on their sponsor.
They are also looking for ways they can use their unique vantage point and network to add value to the relationship. One sponsee we know, for example, forwards feedback to his sponsor that comes from the lower levels of the company – too far to see from the sponsor level. Another offers his domain expertise to help a sponsor with an important presentation. A third is lighting up his network to help a sponsor land a plum speaking opportunity at a conference.
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While companies are betting on sponsorship to develop and retain talent, sponsors must engage in a heartfelt relationship. The work requires preparation, real presence, and patience, and ideally it should be dynamic and bidirectional. As musician Phil Collins once said, “In learning you teach, and in teaching you learn.”