What is Sponsorship Support and How to Get It
When I say “sponsorship support,” what comes to mind? Do you think of an athlete wearing branded gear? A big-name beverage company behind the Superbowl half-time show? While these are types of sponsorship, they are not what I’m referring to. In corporate workplace settings, sponsorship support refers to someone in a senior position advocating for you and your career advancement, usually as an outgrowth of a solid mentoring relationship.
When I was in my 20s and working at Apple, I had my own experience with sponsorship support and that’s where I learned the importance of it. I’ll share more about my story later in this post but first, let’s look at the similarities and differences between mentorship and sponsorship.
Mentorship vs. Sponsorship
Both mentorship and sponsorship take place in a professional setting between a senior leader and a protégé or mentee, someone who is more junior in their career. Mentors can help guide, offer advice, or be a sounding board for their mentee and can also be a role model for them. Mentors are often more experienced and offer their experience for the junior employee to learn from. However, modern mentorship also recognizes how mentors learn from their mentees and grow as well. Mentorship comes in the form of a series of meetings, but the mentoring relationships that grow over time become the most valuable. While typically one-on-one, mentoring can also happen in groups.
Sponsorship is more than mentorship, a step beyond, so to speak. In a sponsorship relationship, the sponsor “expands the person’s visibility within the organization, models self-advancing behavior, and directly involves the protégé in experiences that will provide opportunities for career advancement.” Sponsorship grows out of a strong mentoring relationship where the mentor sees growth and self-accountability in the protégé and helps to advocate for their promotion within the company.
Sponsorship is important for those in more junior positions because sponsors can lend their credibility, experience, clout, and connections to help you move your project forward, advocate for you, and advance your career. Some people might think that looking for a sponsor is a selfish move, however, if your motives are entirely self-centered, it won’t work. Sponsorship thrives on win-win situations, where the business, your sponsor, or your whole department/team wins when you win.
Tips on Getting Sponsorship Support
1. Find Opportunities to Work with Your Sponsor
If you can find a way to tangibly serve someone in upper management, this gives you an opportunity to build a relationship with them while showcasing your skills to them. As a young person in my 20s working at Apple, I was able to get sponsorship support from a VP by doing this. The relationship started when I joined an Employee Resource Group (ERG) where the VP was the group sponsor. I got to know the current chair of the ERG and when the chair stepped down from the role, I applied for the position and interviewed with the team and the VP. I ended up chairing the ERG for five years, over the course of which I met with the VP every month. This VP gave me insights for navigating areas that were sticky by sharing his perspective of company politics and his peers’ points of view. He also helped me discern decisions, areas, and projects that I wasn’t yet ready to take on and would have been harmful for me.
One time, my VP set up a meeting with the Chief HR Officer (CHRO) to help us solve an issue. For someone at my project manager level, it was unheard of to not only get a meeting with the CHRO but to also have the CHRO help solve the concern. This only happened because I had a sponsor who was at the VP level and who advocated for me. My VP went to bat for me when there were things worth fighting for.
2. Understand Business Objectives and Goals
According to Muriel Wilkins, host of the HBR podcast called, “Coaching Real Leaders,” moving up in an organization requires not only the ability to lead projects, but an understanding of the corporation’s goals and how your role, project, and team contributes to that. To increase your potential of finding a sponsor, you need to demonstrate that you have a firm grasp of the organization’s goals and priorities over the next few years. This requires talking to partners and other leaders in the organization, understanding the history of the organization, and knowledge of the org strategy moving forward.
Many leaders tend to be project oriented, but a broader perspective is needed if you want to move to more senior positions. Asking mentors about where the company is heading in the next five years gives you a chance to figure out how you might fit into that process.
3. Change the Way You Tell Your Story
How you tell your story matters. A good question to ask is this: How do I articulate my story so that partners or senior leaders will sponsor me? Your story has to prove that you bring value to the company overall. Wilkins advises, “You need to start telling your story around what the possibility is of what you will bring to the firm if you are a partner [or in a senior position]. So, when somebody is deciding on whether you should [get the promotion] or not, they’re basically placing a bet on the future return.”
Learn to tell your past experiences in a way that connects with the company’s overall goals so that when someone in a senior position asks you what you are doing, you can articulate how you are bringing value to the company, helping them see that you would be a person worth sponsoring. When they can see the potential value you can bring to the future of the company, they will be more willing to invest in you.
Understanding the importance of sponsorship support is a lesson I’m continuing to learn and incorporate in my own career. Going beyond mentorship, sponsorship support means you have someone advocating for you and your career advancement. It means you don’t have to do it all yourself. Finding a sponsor begins by knowing what you want and taking tangible steps to achieve it. In the end, it comes down to relationships and offering value to others – if you work on those things, you will earn the trust you need for leadership positions.
 Omadeke, Janice, “What’s the Difference Between a Mentor and a Sponsor?”, https://hbr.org/2021/10/whats-the-difference-between-a-mentor-and-a-sponsor
 Harvard Business Review, Coaching Real Leaders Podcast, Nov 24, 2021, https://hbr.org/podcast/2021/11/how-do-i-get-sponsorship-support.