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Why mentors are good, but sponsors are great

A sponsor is someone who truly cares about your development, pushes you hard to succeed and fights for you behind closed doors. Here's how you can get one.
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Navigating your career through the political halls of a company can be very challenging. Most people simply want to show up to their job, be evaluated for doing their best and have people appreciate their hard work and results. However, it’s rarely that simple.

People and personalities play a big role in who gets ahead and how talent is discovered and developed. In general, many managers have a view of what they think is a good attitude and a good fit and it may not be correlated to output. For example, some like the charming, outgoing types while others find them off-putting and prefer people who are quiet and unassuming.

People also relate to each other through commonalities like hobbies, mutual interests, culture and background. And it must be noted that gender plays a big role here. First, unconscious bias exists in all of us where, for example, we may see a man who speaks up as assertive but find that same characteristic in a woman annoying.

?Executive coach and organizational development consultant Liz Bentley.
?Executive coach and organizational development consultant Liz Bentley.Courtesy of Liz Bentley Associates.

Second, if you’re working in an environment with mostly men, which is still fairly common, there is going to be a lot more like-mindedness around traditionally male interests than female.

While it is certainly challenging to bridge these differences, your success rests on your ability to connect with all types of people, especially leaders. Leaders are the ones who are more willing to take risks on you, invest in your learning and growth and give you stretch opportunities. Having someone believe in you and push you can accelerate your entire career journey and be a game changer.

What you are looking for in guidance is not just a mentor, someone who provides insight and perspective, but a real sponsor, someone who is all in for you. A sponsor is someone who truly cares about your development, pushes you hard to succeed and fights for you behind closed doors. That means they tell people you should get promoted or get more money and if that’s denied they continue to press for your advancement.

Of course, a mentor in the workplace is extremely valuable. Mentors help you learn new skills, navigate the workplace challenges and encourage your growth. They will advocate on your behalf when needed. Also, a mentor is often easier to connect with because it’s less of a commitment for everyone involved. And in some organizations mentorship is even set up through formal systems. However, a mentor and a sponsor are very different. A mentor is more of a passive support system whereas a sponsor is an active support system.

Sponsorship is a big commitment for both parties and that is why they are much less common. In theory everyone wants a sponsor, someone to fight for them and trumpet their success, but not everyone earns one.

So, how do you get a sponsor?

It doesn’t happen by luck. It comes from working really hard for someone and showing them that you are as dedicated to them and their success as you hope they will be to you. It’s being willing to do the extra work and put in the extra time. It’s about being vulnerable and able to listen to feedback even when it’s hard to hear and then making the appropriate adjustments. It’s having a great attitude day in and day out even when the going gets rough. Most importantly it’s about being authentic – genuinely liking who you are working with, believing in what they do and jumping out of bed to do the work every day. To match up with the right sponsor you need to show up with integrity because this type of connection is not something you can fake.

While most people would acknowledge that they want a sponsor, many say that they just haven’t found someone worthy to believe in yet. I would argue that it’s not about the other person – it’s about you. It’s about you being able to build the relationship and find the commonalities that bring you together.

I find that the most unexpected people can make the best pairs. But you have to be willing to let go of judgement and open yourself up to deeper and more committed connections. You have to put your ego aside and look for the good in people. You will be surprised at what you find and who you find the most interesting. Finding a great sponsor is about finding the greatness inside of yourself first and being confident to make the commitment to someone else.

Liz Bentley is the founder and president of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs. She is a nationally recognized keynote speaker and executive coach to top leaders and teams across a broad range of industries.