Why You Need a Sponsor and How to Get One at Work

By John China, Head of Technology Banking, Silicon Valley Bank

I’m a living, breathing example of how sponsorship works—literally. A decade ago, my sponsor saw something in me and started grooming me for the bank’s executive suite. I wasn’t a perfect fit, so eager to jump in every conversation that I would literally gasp for breath. But because of my sponsor’s willingness to put his credibility on the line, coupled with my willingness to embrace an executive coach, I made it. Today, I am a vocal advocate of sponsorships at work.

At the Watermark Conference for Women in Santa Clara, last February, I was joined by three terrific women to discuss what a sponsor does (different from a mentor), how to get a sponsor and the benefits of being a sponsor. The advice I’m about to share comes from personal experience and nuggets from my fellow panelists: Rachel Herrick Kassabian, an attorney with Quinn Emanual Urquhart & Sullivan; Mary Bui-Pham, COO of Oath, and Laura Sherbin, co-president of Center for Talent Innovation.

I’ll start at the top by noting that I have made a commitment to sponsor only women, specifically women of color. The reason: the innovation economy is woefully unbalanced when measuring gender and racial equity in its ranks. The following advice, however, applies to anybody seeking a sponsor.

What does a sponsor do?

What do Oprah and Rachael Ray, Jay-Z and Kanye, and George Washington and Alexander Hamilton have in common?  They are some of the best-known sponsor-protégé pairs.

While mentors are sorely needed too, they should not be confused with sponsors. A sponsor is someone who believes so strongly in their protégé that they are willing to advocate for the person, transfer relationship capital to them and provide air cover, not only when things are going well, but also when things go poorly. Mentors invest time; sponsors invest their career currency. Or as Sherbin said, mentors talk to you; sponsors talk about you.

How do I get a sponsor?

There’s seldom a sign-up sheet. More often, these relationships grow organically. The sponsor has to choose you. But there are things you can do to get on her radar.

Kassabian recommends being aware of who is praising you and your work; who tends to go out of their way to talk to you, invites you in on a project and gives you a bigger role; and who regularly seeks your opinion. I advise that you show leadership skills by putting yourself in situations that allow you to demonstrate your commitment to the job, ability to identify opportunities and talent for solving problems.

I also suggest that you find sponsors who are willing to invite you into their networks. At Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) and other companies that value these relationships, the sponsor’s goal is often to groom the next generation of leaders. But it’s also more than that: some of us feel it’s our responsibility to help others succeed, especially if we had significant sponsors in our own career, and we are drawn to find people who will be a value-add to our company and industry. Many successful sponsor relationships bloom before the idea has even crossed the sponsor’s mind.

Some companies are building more explicit programs to encourage regular one-to-one conversations and develop activities and events to introduce their protégés to the big bosses and their broader networks. Regardless of how it starts, we all agreed that a common denominator that makes for a successful relationship is the protégé’s openness to accept constructive feedback, and learn from it. 

In the end, being a successful protégé is a matter of hard work and showing some pluck. Most sponsors don’t take on the responsibility on a whim, and neither should you. As Bui-Pham says, it’s a “very personal relationship” that derives from something more than a corporate objective. In her case, she seeks to become a sponsor to women engineers so they may not have to face as tough of a path as she did. For me, it’s also about nurturing a new generation of leaders with more diverse experiences and backgrounds necessary to move the innovation economy forward.

And as a former protégé speaking to a future one, I have to add that giving back also is a key driver.  Sponsors won’t expect gratitude for offering help, but you can give back by becoming a sponsor, in turn, yourself.  There’s no better way to say thank you.


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