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How a Sponsor – not a Mentor – can get your Career on the Fast Track

Mentors and sponsors are buzz words in the business world. Both are invaluable in terms of personal and professional development. But what really makes the difference when it comes to making career progress?

I think we can all agree that having a mentor to influence and inspire you can be an invaluable experience. But if you really want to get ahead, you’ll need more than just words of wisdom to get you to the top. A sponsor has the power to put your career into overdrive.

According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor, while there are many different types of mentors available, sponsorships are much harder to come by. Many high-potential women make the mistake of focusing on role models rather than powerfully placed sponsors- and sponsors are the ones who can make a palpable difference in your career. Research from the Center for Talent Innovation, where Hewlett is the founder and CEO, indicates that people with sponsors are 23% more likely to move up in their career than those without sponsors. In addition:

When it came to asking for a pay raise, the majority of men (67%) and women (70%) resisted confronting their boss. However, with the backing of a sponsor at work, nearly half of men and 38% of women made the request.

When it came to getting assigned to a high-visibility team or stretch assignment, some 43% of male employees and 36% of females approached their manager and made the request. With a sponsor, however, the numbers rose to 56% and 44%, respectively.

Obviously, finding a powerful person to open doors for you can help in any career. With a bit of strategizing, here are some ways in which you can connect with a sponsor:

Get creative in joining networks filled with effective people

Be strategic about the networks you join. Make yourself visible in networks that will allow you to have access to a diverse range of influential people.

Build trust and make it easy for them to see your strengths

Remember that these executives are putting their name on the line to back your career goals and ambitions. The sponsorship relationship has much more at stake for both parties. It’s an investment that must be earned.

“Trust is at the heart of this relationship. When I put my faith in up-and-coming talent and become their sponsor, I need to know I can totally depend on them — because they are, after all, walking around with my brand on.”

                — Kerrie Peraino, global head of talent at American Express.

Focus on the transactional nature of the relationship

When you are seeking a sponsor, focus on what you can bring to the table. Hewlett says, “Make yourself valuable. The big principle is to give before you get.”

How you can give in this relationship is to simply to put your best foot forward. Constantly strive for high performance, inspire confidence, and find ways to use your unique skill set. Expect your sponsor to be more of a gatekeeper, not a wise counselor or sounding board to your troubles that a mentor is, especially at the start of the relationship. For this reason, avoid emotionally investing in your sponsor to be the only and ultimate enabler of your career success.

While sponsorship is neither the silver bullet to gender balance at the leadership level, it is one extremely useful tool that both emerging male and female leaders can leverage to support their career goals and aspirations.

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