Career Sponsorship Is a Two-Way Street
Sponsorship is a vital mechanism for advancing the careers of junior employees. But it’s not just a one-way relationship in which everything flows from the sponsor to the sponsee. What sponsees bring to the relationship, in fact, is just as important — if not more important — than what sponsors do. This article describes six of the most important attributes of successful sponsees.
As companies scale up initiatives to advance underrepresented talent, many are anchoring their efforts in matching top performers to senior sponsors. As we recently wrote in “What Great Sponsors Do Differently,” sponsors are full-throated advocates who expend political capital on their sponsees. How sponsors do their jobs can make a huge difference in the success of this crucial relationship — but to make the most of it, sponsees themselves have an even more consequential role to play.
In the regular work we do with companies on planning and implementing sponsorship initiatives, we’ve observed that the most successful sponsees do six important things.
1. They are proactive and well-prepared.
Sponsor-sponsee relationships often evolve during scheduled meetings. The quality of these sessions depends on the preparation that goes into them. Successful sponsees drive the relationship, knowing sponsors are often short on time. They do their homework, reading their sponsor’s published material online (including social-media posts). They reach out to schedule the meeting, then show up with an agenda that may include reviewing challenges they are seeking input on, thoughtful questions about the sponsor’s own experiences, or a next step they are mulling over. As the relationship deepens, sponsees collect feedback about themselves to present a fuller picture of their impact and opportunities. In a formal program, they may also invite the sponsor to speak with their manager directly.
2. They give their sponsors clear and concrete direction.
Sponsors are people of action. They don’t just tell you the forecast for your career; they create the right weather for you. But they can’t do that without knowing how. The most effective sponsees give their sponsors clear direction on how to support them. They spend time reflecting on a range of steps a sponsor might take on their behalf. If they have a personal development plan, they share it.
We have seen some sponsees disengage prematurely because they equate having a sponsor with seeking promotion. That is a lost opportunity. Great sponsees understand that sponsorship involves a broad spectrum of actions that may ultimately result in promotion but need not be defined by it. Knowing that there are different ways of helping allows sponsees to get support for growing within the current role.
That said, sponsees don’t need air-tight certainty about their ambition. When sponsees worry about not having a clear vision for their next step, we try to help them understand that there is still a lot they can do. One sponsee we worked with, for example, completed a SWOT analysis for her current role. Another created a deck for her sponsor outlining her contributions. Another focused on building a list of leaders she hoped to add to her network.
To help sponsees come up with ways that their sponsors can help them , one of us (Rachel) puts this set of generative questions to them:
- What skills do you want or need to develop in order to advance in your career? What experiences or opportunities do you need to want or need to have?
- What might you want feedback on 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 delaying you from advancing in your career? How might they be mitigated?
- What role or opportunity might be a fit for you, but you think you’re not quite ready for it? What would it take, in your opinion, to be ready?
- Who are the leaders with whom you would like to connect, share your impact or possibly work with in the future?
Answering these questions helps sponsees be better prepared to ask sponsors for what they need. At the end of the day, sponsors can’t act on behalf of their sponsees if they don’t know how.
3. They work to make a good impression but also remain authentic.
Skillful sponsees walk a line between projecting the excellence sponsors want to invest in and revealing ways they still need help. They present multiple sides of themselves — the successful self and the work-in-progress self. This is a tightrope for underrepresented groups, whose skill gaps and missteps are scrutinized more harshly than others.
One sponsee we know was placed in two advancement programs, then given additional scope in her role without headcount. Tied up on work calls during her vacation, she lacked both time to think about career growth and emotional reserves to take new risks. But she kept her sponsor in the dark, worrying he would judge her for a lack of sangfroid. Once the sponsee opened up, he coached her to approach her manager with a deck outlining a way forward. The sponsor’s support, both empathic and tactical, created space for development conversations. Her authenticity opened the door.
4. They value what their sponsor is best equipped to contribute.
Few relationships are a perfect or quick match, nor are their benefits clear from the first few meetings. Successful sponsees work hard to avoid making snap judgments of their sponsors such as “We have nothing in common,” “I can’t learn from him, we’re too different,” or “She won’t ever get me.” The best sponsees manage their expectations, stay curious, and intuitively understand that what people offer them will be shaped by what they are open to receiving.
One sponsee we know expressed concern about a match to a sponsor, because prior to being matched she’d had prickly interactions the person during meetings. In a new context, the sponsor surprised her with a different vibe. Another sponsee worried that her sponsor was too green at the company to exert influence or expand her network. At their first meeting, she learned that he had faced the same challenges at his last company that she was confronting now. She got a front-row seat to tactical lessons someone had already learned.
5. They build broad and diverse developmental networks.
The mythology of sponsorship is not unlike that of romance: We imagine there is an ideal sponsor match —“the one” — who is out there for us to find. Great sponsees reject that notion and instead pursue a pragmatic strategy of building a network of developmental relationships. They recognize that we cycle through and gain value from many connections over time, and we sometimes discover connection where and when we least expect it.
Building a broad network is especially important when your sponsor is different from you. For example, women may value the perspective of female sponsors who have coped with gender stereotyping or juggled work and family. But in many organizations the sponsors who understand you, and those who can pull you up through 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, particularly in formal programs that convene participants. We’ve seen that when sponsees use their peers as sounding boards and benchmarks, they are considerably emboldened in developing their relationship with their sponsors. It’s much easier to strategize how to work with sponsors when you can talk with your peers about how they have handled similar challenges and opportunities.
6. They seek to add value to their sponsor.
It’s limiting to assume that the benefits in a sponsorship relationship run largely downstream, from sponsor to sponsee. For starters, great sponsees 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’re also on the lookout for ways they can use their unique vantage point and network to bring value to the relationship. One sponsee we know, for example, passed along feedback to her sponsor that came from the lower-levels of the company — too far down to be visible from the sponsor’s level. Another offered her domain expertise to help a sponsor with an important presentation. A third lit up his network to help a sponsor obtain a plum speaking opportunity at a conference.
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As companies bet on sponsorship to develop and retain talent, sponsees must engage wholeheartedly in the relationship. The work requires preparation, authentic presence, and patience, and at its best it should be dynamic and bidirectional. As the musician Phil Collins once put it, “In learning you will teach, and in teaching you will learn.”