An almost universal piece of business jargon is ‘stakeholder management’ – which is basically how you deal with others within and even outside of the company. Or as Urban Dictionary says, “A term widely used in the corporate environment usually by management or workers aspiring to be managers without any intelligence or sense of how stupid they sound”. Since they don’t suggest anything better, I’m sticking with it.
You’re probably aware of the basic stakeholders that pretty much everyone has – a boss, colleagues, etc. But – do you have a sponsor? No, I don’t mean sponsors like the companies that pay skateboarders to wear their clothes, or sponsors who help you stick with your AA program. In the corporate world, a sponsor is someone who goes to bat for you, who actively advocates for you – your role on a project, your promotion, your compensation, and so on.
Don’t have one of these? If you’re not sure, you probably don’t! Lots of people mistake friendly relationships with senior leaders, for sponsorship. This is a big deal. Tons of research suggests that if there’s one silver bullet when it comes to career progression, sponsorship is it.
So how do you get it? First of all, it’s earned. No one deserves a sponsor without working their butt off and doing amazing work. Once you have that in check, here are some tips to create that relationship.
1) Figure out who can sponsor you. Sponsors are necessarily senior and have to have a seat at the table where decisions about your career take place. Map out those people, and the people who influence them, to get started. Learn as much as you can about them – what’s their background, what are they interested in, what are their priorities, etc.
2) Find out ways to get in front of them. Senior people almost always have extra responsibilities, especially chairing committees. So if your target sponsor is in charge of the sports committee, brush up on that tennis backhand. If they’re leading the company’s diversity initiative, send them a great (but lesser known) article on the business case for training around generational differences. The great thing about getting to know senior managers through ‘extracurriculars’ is that you’ll get to see a different, and typically softer, side of them. I’ve had great relationships with many senior leaders who others thought were terrifying. Building the relationship around a less stressful topic is a great way to start the connection. It’s of course not enough though…
3) Find out how you can add value to them. So here’s where it can get trickier. You need to deliver something, and something that helps the potential sponsor or makes them look good – ideally both. You want to become seen as someone who is trusted, reliable, and who will help build the sponsor’s brand and legacy. Like with networking, you need to figure out how to give them what they want, not get what you want. Reciprocity will happen naturally.
I have seen the difference that a sponsor makes. One minute, John is getting the big job. The next, after a call from Jill’s sponsor to the hiring manager, Jill’s in. Ask any senior leader about if there was anyone who particularly supported them and their career, and you’ll get plenty more sponsorship stories. What do you think about sponsorship? Is it sneaky and political, or smart and strategic? Let me know what you think in the comments below!