“I had a wonderful sponsor in my company who was two levels above me, until she decided to take a position in another organization. Suddenly, I was left without an advocate at my company.”
-Susan Beat, Senior Vice President at Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Research shows that individuals who are most satisfied with their rate of advancement are individuals with sponsors. It’s great to have a sponsor. But it’s even better to have more than one. As Susan found out, there is a risk in hooking your star to just one person in upper management. When that person moves on from your organization, you can be left without a sponsor to advocate on your behalf.
Another risk of having just one sponsor is that you only receive one point of view for each situation you face. As time goes on, you may even be seen as an extension of your sponsor to others in the company. This perception can be good when it comes to the things your sponsor does well, but you might also be loading their baggage onto your shoulders.
With more sponsors, you can receive some diversity of thought and support to help manage these risks. Think about building relationships with multiple people at least 2 levels ahead of you. You may want to revisit our blog titled “S” is for: “Show up as a leader a sponsor would stake his/her reputation on.” Your first sponsor could be a more obvious choice if you already have a relationship with him or her. Once you have your first sponsor, don’t stop there. Continue to look for other advocates to support you in your career.
Who might be a good sponsor for you?
Building strong relationships in the organization takes some planning. Make a list of a few individuals that you believe could provide access and knowledge to reach your career goals. Think about it strategically. If you desire operational roles, then select leaders in operational areas where you have interest. If you like marketing, then identify leaders in Product Development or Sales and Marketing.
How can you get time with such busy leaders?
First, utilize the opportunities that are planned for you. Do you have an upcoming meeting where you will interact with more senior leaders in your company? Could you attend a lunch and learn or social event where leaders will be present? Asking to be seated next to them affords a great first step.
If you don’t have any upcoming events to leverage, what do you do? Look for opportunities to contribute to projects they are leading. There is no better way for an advocate to become a sponsor than to let them see you in action. Extend your visibility by asking onto a workteam outside of your regular scope. Or just ask the leader to get coffee. It can be intimidating to reach out to an executive, but in my experience, 9 out of 10 times they will accept. You might say something like,
“You have such great insight into our business, and I would value the opportunity to have coffee with you and understand more about your perspectives and direction for our company.”
Executives love to share their perspectives and love to see up-and-comers take initiative. Remember, if you don’t ask, they can’t say ‘yes’!
What do I talk to them about?
Once you have your target list, learn about them. Check their LinkedIn profile and ask about them through others that work with them. Do they serve on boards? Work with non-profits? Have other interests such as a favorite sports team or coaching their children’s athletics? Knowing a bit about their background allows you to more easily connect on a personal level when you get the chance to have the conversation.
Don’t forget to prepare for their questions too. Create your 1-minute elevator pitch that tells them what you do really well. They may have a need for your talents on one of their projects, which could really open the door for a great relationship. Another helpful exercise is to write your own future job description. Leaders are willing to help if you can articulate how they can do so. If you prepare this way, you are in a great position to share your desires when the opportunity presents itself.
Take notes during your conversation, and have several questions prepared in advance. Open-ended questions that invite descriptive answers are the best approach. If you know they serve on the board of the Art Museum, then start with a question about what they like most about it.
How can I make sure the relationship continues?
Be sure to thank them for their time, and close with a request for a future meeting. “I really enjoyed my time with you and learned so much. I would love the opportunity to do this again in a few months.” If you talked about an opportunity to work with them, you might volunteer for one of their projects.
Then, follow through. Reach out in a month with something that may interest them. You might have visited an exhibit at the Art Museum where they are a board member, or you may have seen an article related to one of the business topics you discussed. Both are great ways to show your engagement and desire to continue the relationship.
Finding additional sponsors can be daunting, but don’t let that stop you from putting in the effort. With just one sponsor, you are just one career decision away from being left with no advocates. That is a big risk to take with your career. Continue to nurture new sponsor relationships and enjoy the opportunities that follow.
What have you found to work for establishing trusted relationships within your organization? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!