How to Find a Sponsor and Benefit from the Relationship

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After I published my last article on the differences between sponsors and mentors, several people asked how to get a sponsor, so I wanted to address that point and also mention some of the key ways to manage and cultivate the relationship. Finding a sponsor requires determination and can take months or even years, but the benefit often is huge. Although procedures and practices differ among organizations, there are certain ideas that hold true for anyone looking for and working with a sponsor:

1. Understand your goal in procuring a sponsor. Are you looking for a promotion or a new position? Are you aiming to be put on a high profile project or task force? Do you want to transition to a new area of the organization? Your objective should be something you cannot achieve without high level help, and you should be able to clearly state what you want to gain by having a sponsor advocate for you.

2. Identify a group of 4-5 people in your organization or field who are decision makers or who influence decision makers relevant to your goal.  These should be people with clout and power in your professional realm. In an organization, think about senior members of steering committees, heads of departments, and high level officers in addition to people solely involved in HR matters. If you are an entrepreneur or small business owner, think broadly about heads of associations, contacts who have influence with potential clients, leaders of industry you’d like to access, etc.

3. Learn as much as you can about the people you’ve identified.  Become familiar with your potential sponsor’s career and areas of expertise. Look for points of connection such as past work, outside interests, volunteer activities, etc. so you can make a meaningful connection. Although your sponsor does not need to have a career path similar to yours, be of the same ethnic background, or have a similar personality, you may want to find a sponsor with whom you can relate in order to increase your sense of comfort with him or her. 

4. Build a relationship with your potential sponsor.  Just as you wouldn’t spring a huge ask on someone who doesn’t know you well, you must build trusting relationships with potential sponsors over time before raising the topic of sponsorship. Introduce or reintroduce yourself to potential sponsors and find ways to inform them about the work you’re doing and the goals you’ve set. Connect around areas you have in common, both professional and personal. Seek avenues to help them with initiatives and projects to build trust and connection.

5. Demonstrate excellence.  Sponsors only take on people who are highly effective professionals with a demonstrated track record of accomplishment. Because a sponsor advocates for you, he or she is putting his or her own reputation on the line when backing you. You therefore must be someone your sponsor is extremely proud to be associated with; you must be deserving of their support.

6. Ask one person to be your sponsor. Once you’ve cultivated a few relationships, pick one person as your potential sponsor and ask him or her to consider taking you on. Be ready to explain clearly what you would like to get out of the relationship and how you’d like to continue to help him or her in their own professional endeavors.

7. Keep asking. If the person you first approach does not agree to be your sponsor, ask someone else. The decision to sponsor someone is a serious one, so there is a good chance you’ll have to ask more than one person to consider it. Build on your positive relationships and do not give up until you get a yes!

8. Cultivate the relationship. Once someone has agreed to be your sponsor, be diligent about structuring the relationship. Find an effective way to keep your sponsor fully informed about the work you’re doing. Dedicate a portion of your time to assisting your sponsor in any way he or she needs, be that from working on specific projects or offering to collect feedback from others on his or her ideas.

9. Ask for advice. Your sponsor will have suggestions on ways you can showcase your talents in order to achieve the goal you’re aiming for. Take his or her advice unless there is a serious reason not to. Be honest and have clear and frequent communication. Let your sponsor know about your successes and explain ways you’re working to overcome challenges.

10. Reassess periodically. As time goes by, check in with your sponsor about how you’re progressing on reaching your goal. Is he or she seeing you get closer to achieving your objective? What more can you be doing? Assess next steps together and whether your sponsor is still able to help with your original objective.

11. Be thankful. Always be gracious, professional, and thankful in dealing with your sponsor. He or she will likely be in your professional orbit one way or another for years to come. Keep the relationship purposeful, and when it comes time to end it, do so on a positive note.