Sponsorship is the New Black

by Amanda Viana, Head Editor, INALJ Massachusetts

Sponsorship is the New Black

amandavianaI was in elementary school when I met my mentor. She was the warm and welcoming presence in my local public library and she was the knowledgeable and resourceful go-to Reference Librarian when I had a school report or just a curiosity. I have always been an avid reader but what my mentor showed me was that librarianship was about so much more than books. She greeted everyone with a smile and her patience never seemed to wane. With her as an example librarianship became my goal.

Over the years I got to know her better, had more opportunities to speak with her about libraries and librarianship, and look to her for guidance and advice. I wrote my college entrance essays about how she had inspired me and influenced my career goals. When I was a paraprofessional she gave me enormous freedom and encouragement to try new things, take on new duties, experiment, learn, and grow. When I earned my degree and it was clear that there weren’t going to be any professional positions opening at our library, she was the first to tell me to put my career first and she encouraged and supported me every step of the way.

She has continued to be a mentor to me. She always finds time to answer my questions and give me advice. Now that I’m on the Board of Trustees at the library I get to see her in a whole new way, observe her from a different perspective and I find that I am still learning from her. I would not be half the librarian I am today if it wasn’t for her.

So, having had such an incredible and influential mentor, imagine my surprise when I began to stumble upon career articles extolling the values of sponsorship. What was a sponsor? How was a sponsor different from mentor? And if it was so great—how could I get myself one? Lucky for me I’m a reference librarian, so I dug in and started to do some research.

Here’s what I learned:

  • A mentor is someone who provides advice, encouragement, and counsel. They can be a sounding board, a cheerleader, a reference, and a source of knowledge and experience. A mentorship is often based on affinity; the mentor may even see something of themselves in the mentee. My relationship with my mentor is meaningful, important, and fulfilling.

So what is a sponsor?

  • Well, it’s like a mentor-plus. A sponsor can (but doesn’t necessarily) fulfill all the roles of a mentor, but unlike a mentor they are actively seeking to advance your career. They’re not only encouraging; they are throwing your hat in the ring for advancement, promotion, raises, and other opportunities. They’re not just playing a supporting role—they are a driving force. A mentor is a super-fan, cheering you on from the sidelines, offering praise and support. A sponsor is the coach—the person who is in a position to put you in the big game and give you a chance to showcase your skills.

Why are sponsors so much more invested in your success than mentors? A sponsorship is more symbiotic than a mentorship. A mentor’s own success is not necessarily linked to that of their mentee—but a key component of a sponsorship is that the individuals in both roles impact each other. Work culture is changing in ways that benefit both sponsors and protégés. Workers with sponsors are more likely to ask for and receive promotions, raises, and special projects. Sponsorship is becoming a metric for advancement in many industries; high-level employees are expected to sponsor subordinates and to grow a network of support.

The choice to become a sponsor is based on the level of talent and potential the sponsor sees in a possible protégé. The way a sponsor sees it, recommending a resourceful, talented, hardworking professional for a position or project will reflect positively on them. When a sponsor vouches for someone who impresses the higher-ups they are taking advantage of an opportunity to show their good judgment and instincts about people. The more you succeed, the more they succeed. The more valuable an asset you are the more likely a sponsor will be to help ensure your success. It’s a win/win.

So how do you get a sponsor? Step one: work your tail off! Mentors may be attracted to raw potential but sponsors want to see of hard work, creativity, innovative-ness, problem- solving skills, and drive. They need strong evidence of your talent in order to “sell” you. In essence they’re marketing you and so you need to provide them with past successes and a consistent commitment to your career so that they can promote you to other influential people. Step two: promote yourself. In order to attract a sponsor you need to show them that you’re good enough for them to put their neck out for you. They’re essentially linking their reputation to yours, so you have to be worth the risk. Step three: network! A lot of people think that working hard and putting 100% of your energy into getting the job done will be enough to help them advance. But all evidence points to the contrary; in order to get ahead you have to work hard and people have to know you and recognize that hard work. Focus on the value of relationships as much as hard work and dedication. They are as, perhaps even more, important than the other factors when it comes to success.

So, in three steps:
1. Put your nose to the grindstone.
2. Shamelessly self-promote.
3. Network, network, network.

Sources for further reading:
Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, President and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation
How a Sponsor Can Propel a Woman’s Career” by Christine Christian
Sponsors vs. Mentors: what’s the difference?” from Women Powering Business
Got a Mentor? Good. Now Find a Sponsor” by Anne Fisher
Women and the Trouble with Mentors” by Selena Rezvani