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How to be a better sponsor

by Laura Aitken-Burt February 10, 2016

As a young consultant, part of the hard work alongside time pressured assignments is to extensively network and build a reputation as a reliable, flexible and collegial colleague to hopefully get the attention of a potential sponsor. Sponsorship is an extremely vital mechanism within business that propels high achievers to the upper echelons of a company. It can be a formal partnership within an organisation where junior candidates vie for a specified number of positions or it can be an informal affiliation, perhaps even a protégé being recommended without their knowledge. Doubtless to say that having a senior decision-making backer is a highly sought after prize amongst the junior levels who will do their utmost to impress and gain attention from their peers.

But the hard work doesn't just come from the protégé’s side – the sponsor has to put in effort too. As the new year continues and sponsor partnerships are formed, here are some tips on how to make the most of being a sponsor, for your protégé and yourself.

  • Sponsoring is NOT mentoring  Kathy Hopinkah Hannan – An important role that senior associates will take on as they get higher is mentoring those below them, giving advice and listening to their mentees concerns and easing their worries. But sponsorship is a much more active role and must not be confused. It involves advocating, protecting and fighting for the career advancement of protégés in a vocal and open manner amongst senior colleagues also doing the same for theirs. As Kathy Hopinkah Hannan, a KPMG partner, says 'a coach tells you what to do, a mentor will listen to you and speak with you, but a sponsor will talk about you. Do not instil the hope or promise of sponsorship to a junior candidate if you are not going to deliver – it is not fair to foster a misconstrued definition of your support for them as they will rely on it in the future and could be bitterly disappointed.

  • Find chemistry – If you are going to be repping them, you have to believe in them. That is only going to come from finding in a protégé something of yourself several years ago – the eager glint in their eye to learn and rise to challenges. You have to find someone you relate to so that you feel confident in sticking up for them. As a senior level manager, you can provide the substance of the provision, but you should really want this person to get higher in the company because of their potential to thrive and succeed.

  • Be active not passive  Marilyn Nagel – Being a sponsor requires active willingness and participation in the relationship with your protégé. Marilyn Nagel, Cisco’s chief diversity officer explains that  “the primary role of the sponsor is to open doors for the talent and to introduce opportunities for exposure, to demonstrate to a different or higher-level audience what they can bring to the company.” This will need you to be proactive and vocal on behalf of the protégé in meetings and conversations where they are not present, not waiting for them to contact you for assistance in securing a role using your senior position and influence.

  • Encourage communication – As with any relationship, communication is key to understanding what is happening. Sponsors can analyse and sharpen project objectives and goals and approve review schedules. Protégés may feel intimidated to ask for support and only wait for key 'milestone meetings' or highly orchestrated and revised presentations before approaching you. Be involved in what your protégés are doing, helping them to get noticed by the senior levels. Do not be afraid of how much input you can provide.

  • Listen to your protégé  Catalyst's 2011 survey – Although younger and less experienced than a sponsor, the protégé can offer insightful new ideas and information on business through their subjective viewpoint, particularly on digital issues being those who have grown up with it. Looking at things in a different light is always helpful in reaching solutions for the problems consultants look to provide for their clients. Not only this but it can refine your own eye towards the business as a whole at the senior level – as a female sponsor speaking to Catalyst's 2011 survey said, listening to protégés is “sometimes a good reality check on what’s going on in the business in areas I don’t work in or [at] different levels. It helps me keep connected with the undertones and the culture of the environment in the business”.

  • Offer high risk assignments – To show off your protégé as above the rest, nominate them for a high risk assignment. If you think they are up to the challenge, guide them through the ways to excel, despite the added pressure. If they shine in this, they will have proved themselves to all the senior management and your advocacy of them will be taken even more strongly for the next assignment.

  • Accept the high stakes  Kerrie Peraino – The nature of sponsorship is reciprocal; not only must the protege  deliver on what you recommend them for, the sponsor puts their own reputation on the line for their success. But, by nurturing the next generation of talent, their successes are also your successes so you must not shy away from taking a gamble on them. Encourage them to take up the challenge and calm nerves and worries whilst preparing them for this next step up. “Sponsors toss [the protégé's] hat in the ring before they would...they take calculated risks on them” says Kerrie Peraino, Chief Diversity Officer of American Express.

  • Do not be dictatorial  - Sponsorship does not mean being a teacher that must be listened to at all times. Use the 'Socratic method' of asking questions and then pushing back and allowing the protégé to find their own way. Ask the right questions which make them think and reach the answers themselves. This method of teaching makes you a far better leader for allowing individualism and sparking creative talent to come up with new solutions.

  • Don't take on too many sponsorships  Junior candidates will all be trying to find ways to socialise and woo potential sponsors, but do not offer to take on too many. Not only will you not have time to dedicate enough attention to each one that strategic guidance and support will not be adequately given, but the interests of multiple protégés could clash.

  • Encourage talent stewardship – The benefits of sponsorship as a system are wide and varied and it certainly works as a powerful career accelerator. Amongst the senior levels, be positive about the sponsorship system and encourage as many senior level employees to take a protégé under their wing. By offering the potential for great advancement within the company and by investing time and energy in new recruits, the most savvy and ambitious individuals will be sure to stay within the firm rather than sit in the offices of your top competitor in 18 months or even go it alone as a freelancer.

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