Be a Great Sponsor

All Fortune 500 companies have mentoring programs.  They understand the importance of helping mentees tap into the knowledge of those with more experience to learn faster and perform at a higher level.  But to really move the needle on talent development we need better sponsorship.  A sponsor is someone who promotes a protégé to other people to help advance their career.  I love the simple phrase to remember the distinction – “Mentors talk to you; Sponsors talk about you to powerful people when you aren’t in the room.”

Organizations need to devote more time and resources to developing great sponsors.  Building a pool of experienced sponsors will make your succession development, employee engagement, and employee retention efforts more successful.  I offer the following tips to start your team on the right path.

Change Your Mindset – Think Kaleidoscope versus Telescope

This image comes from Beverly Kaye, an icon in the training and development space.  Many leaders think of sponsorship like a telescope.  A telescope offers one linear point of view – one straight line focused on something that may be far away.  Senior leaders often focus on developing one person deemed “ready-now” to replace them.  This is too limiting.

Great sponsors, instead, think like a kaleidoscope.  A kaleidoscope gives you an array of views using only three mirrors and a handful of beads.  Great sponsors combine the experiences, knowledge, skills, and education of a leader in new ways to create multiple career options and paths.

Understand Talent on a Deeper Level

I cannot tell you how many times I have lived through the following scenario during a succession planning meeting.  A senior leader proposes a person is placed on the succession slate for a critical role.  They outline their strengths, readiness, and leadership skills.  Someone then asks the question, “Do they want this role?  Have you spoken with them about this opportunity?”  After a short silence, I hear the word, “No.”

Great sponsors invest the time to know their talent on a deeper level.  The first step is to answer the question, what is central to success in the role, company, or industry?  They assess three things:

  • Ability. Demonstrated knowledge and skills to perform at a higher level.
  • Aspiration. Will, drive, and motivation to work hard, achieve, and do what it takes to get the job done.
  • Social Skills. Ability to manage oneself and other.

 Build Relationships

To get a promotion and/or accepted into executive ranks hiring managers and senior leaders must know and like your work and know and like you as a person.  Most sponsors do an excellent job of getting powerful decision-makers to know and like your work.  They share the what and the how of your accomplishments.  What business goals you have achieved.  How you got there using specific behaviors and leadership style.  They might also share the why – your underlying motivation, values, or drivers of your work.

Great sponsors get decision-makers to know and like you as a person.  This is as important as promoting your work accomplishments.  Great sponsors help others know talent at a deeper level.  Specifically:

  • General Traits. Understand a person’s broad, general traits.  For example, knowing how shy, outgoing, intelligent, or warm they are.
  • Personal Concerns. Understand what they want at this point in their lives, and methods they use to get what they want or avoid what they do not want.
  • Acquaintance to Friend. Help evolve relationships with others from work colleague to friends with personal connections.

Focusing on building friendships is particularly important for sponsoring BIPOC leaders (Black, Indigenous, and people of color).  It is effective for removing biases and barriers to promotion.

Identify Superpowers

Great sponsors help leaders answer the question, “what towering strength can I use to propel my career?”  They use this information to determine how leaders can best add value to the organization.  They combine the superpower and value to place leaders into the appropriate succession pools and create a comprehensive development plan.

Bottom Line

Become a great sponsor by developing an array of opportunities, understanding talent on a deeper level, helping build strong relationships, and identifying superpowers.

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