Strategies to Attract Sponsors

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In Part 1 of this blog series on Sponsorship, I poked you by stating: 

  • If you are in a position of power and you are not sponsoring someone, you are failing as a leader.  
  • If you have great aspirations for future success and don’t have a sponsor, you will never reach your pinnacle.  

If you were one of those people who said, “I need to get me one of those!,” then Part 2 is for you. This post will describe how to position yourself to attract sponsors. If you are one of the leaders that I called out for not having a sponsee, then Part 2 will help you start identifying high potential employees to test out your sponsoring skills.  

Every employee with great aspirations to get ahead should be preparing themselves to be sponsored. If you aren’t cultivating potential sponsor relationships, you are taking more risk than you may recognize.  Who is pounding the table on your behalf behind closed doors when hard decisions are being made?   

Preparing to be sponsored is nothing like preparing to be mentored.  I just advised a coaching client a few weeks ago about how to seek a mentor.  My standard advice for mentoring is to ask someone for advice and guidance about a specific topic. It is much less awkward to say, “Can you teach me how to be a good medical director” than to ask, “Will you be my mentor?”  You should start by asking mentors for subject and time-limited, low-risk, low-stakes advice and guidance. And, the advice and guidance should be things in their wheelhouse.  

When it comes to sponsorship, it is not something you will typically be asking for. It is something you will be positioning yourself for and earning.  So, the strategies for becoming a great sponsee are related more to how you craft your persona and define yourself and how you deliver results in the workplace.  Essentially, it is showing potential sponsors that you are a worthwhile high-stakes investment.  

It’s worth starting out by asking if this is the right time for you to be seeking a sponsor. Are you sponsor-worthy and sponsor-ready?  This Harvard Business Review assessment is a great place to start.  Take a look at the checklist and see if you think this is the right time for you.  Are you ready to have a sponsor?

If you decide you are ready, the following list of strategies will help you position yourself as an attractive investment.  Because sponsors are human capital venture capitalists, think of this process as creating your pitch.  Only in this case, you will not go in for a one-time pitch.  This pitch will instead become a pervasive theme throughout your work and professional life – or your own personal brand.  

How to position yourself as a potential sponsee.

Be exceptional 

Be outstanding and exceed expectations, even when the stakes are low. The best future sponsees are the employees who consistently and reliably deliver excellence. They are not satisfied with mediocre results or with meeting the minimal bar.  But, they also know how to differentiate work that deserves excellence, and jobs that can be accomplished at the “good-enough” level.  In order to be noticed and selected by a sponsor, you need to publicly perform at your highest level.  If you consistently simply meet expectations, don’t expect to be singled out and earn sponsorship, at least not by a good sponsor. 

Cultivate and outwardly project a growth mindset.  

Be the person who is always absorbing, learning and growing.  Be the person who believes great employees and great leaders are developed, not born.  Display to others that, although you are really smart and capable, you always have something to learn from someone else.  Make it clear that you believe your knowledge and skill bank will never be full.  Don’t mistake this for excessive or false humility and self-deprecating statements.  The growth mindset is not a comparison between an ideal and an actual state. It is simply the recognition that when it comes to learning, there is no final destination and you don’t ever plan to arrive.  

Be eager, receptive and open to potential opportunities.   

Too many people (women, especially), let their first answer to a proposed opportunity be an expression of hesitation.  Potential sponsors are out there seeking their next investment opportunities. And, the bait they use will often be exposure opportunities where they can assess you in real-time. The first test is your initial response.  Look at these potential responses: “That sounds really exciting, but I’m not sure I am qualified.”  “Wow, I am flattered you thought of me. Let me think about it a little.”  “That sounds like an amazing opportunity, I’d like to think about whether I have the time to commit to that.”  Those are all expressions of hesitation.  Instead, your first outward reaction would better serve you if it was uniformly positive, even if you end up backing out later because it isn’t practical. Becoming a prime candidate for sponsorship does mean accepting great exposure opportunities even when they push you out of your comfort zone or will be a lot of extra work.  Start to seek out and enthusiastically accept challenging stretch assignments.   Think of it this way:  if a truly remarkable person offers an opportunity to you, hesitation is a kind of second guessing about their choice of you.

Be explicit about your desire to progress in career trajectory.  

Too often, I talk to people (often women), who are disappointed that they never got ahead in their career or were never tapped for leadership roles.  When we explore this more, they often admit that they would never feel comfortable telling anyone about their aspirations.  In fact, they are more likely hiding them from the very people who can help make these dreams happen!   Does your boss know you want more?  Please do not think that you are being presumptuous or overly ambitious (I hate both of those words!). It is critical to have frank conversations about the next steps in your career with people of influence. A minor word of caution here, though. Some poor bosses see ambitious employees as a threat to themselves. Not only do you want to stay away from these people as potential sponsors, but you should also be careful about what you disclose to them.

Make potential sponsors look good

Before you have a sponsor, you’ll have to think about this more globally. Carefully consider how your work and actions can reflect well on the people above you. This doesn’t mean deferentially shifting credit for work you have done. But, it does mean recognizing the support and trust that your leaders have given you. Once you have a sponsor, you’ll want to do everything you can to make your sponsor look good. Again, this isn’t referring to obsequious behaviors. It means, out-perform your sponsor’s expectations. Show everyone that your sponsor knows how to pick people.  Express your opinion and don’t be afraid to be a dissenting voice, but choose when and how to use your voice wisely.  Some potential sponsors will appreciate public dialogue and debate, but others will appreciate a more behind-the-scenes approach.  As long as you are respectful, well-reasoned, and don’t become dogmatic or married to your desired outcome, a sponsor will likely appreciate your opinion and thoughts.   

Build your personal brand identity

This is about the messages that others receive from your work products, action and person that bring you recognition and identity.  Who are you at work?  What do you want to be known for?  Try coming up with your personal brand identity, just like if you were Nike or Starbucks.  One major caveat is that as you start to craft your personal brand identity, you want to make sure that you are crafting it for the future you and not for the present you.  For example, if you are staff physician in the ED, but you want a hospital level administrative role, you won’t just want to be known for your dependability, good diagnostic skills, solid work ethic, and efficiency.  You will want your brand identity to resonate with leadership, management, executive presence and strategic thinking. 

Be ready. 

You are working to become an excellent investment, and earning the respect of senior leadership, and being noticed.   You never know when you will get tapped on the shoulder by a sponsor. When that sponsorship is offered either directly or indirectly, be prepared and ready to step into the role of sponsee.  And, start listening to signs that others might already be sponsoring you. Have you been told things like “we were talking about you the other day,” or “the CEO was mentioning your name recently.” These are signs that you may already have a developing sponsor.  Can you figure out who it is? 

This is part 2 in a three-part series on sponsorship.  Part 1 describes sponsorship and mentorship and part 3 is strategies for being a sponsor.