How Leaders can be Great Sponsors

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Every leader, every expert, every person with power of any kind should be purposefully and strategically investing in someone under them.  The best leaders recognize that their true legacy is the people that they elevate to succeed them.  If you are a leader and haven’t invested fully and deeply in another person, you should start by asking yourself why not.  

  • Are you hesitant to take risks on other people?  
  • Have you not identified people who are worth your investment? 
  • Are you hiring the right people? 
  • Are you fully confident that you have the power and clout to be a sponsor?  
  • Do you not believe in the concept of sponsorship for some reason?
  • Did you yourself never have a sponsor?

If you aren’t a sponsor as a leader, you are taking more risk than you think.  The risks are that of a slow fade and no lasting legacy, or a hasty exit when nobody threatens to walk out with you, or life as a lonely leader without thought partners.   If you recognize that you want to get good at this thing called sponsorship, here are some strategies that you can use to develop.   

How to be a great sponsor

Hire well.  

If you struggle to find someone to sponsor, consider whether you are hiring the right people. Are you hiring people who you think will be more successful than you have been?  How about people who push you and challenge you to become better?  Are your employees energetic, inspirational and highly motived to grow and learn?  (Take a look at part 2 for a complete list of characteristics of great sponsees, which might also serve as s hiring guide.)  One of my favorite strategies for hiring well is to hire for potential and not for proficiency. It might feel counter-intuitive, but try avoiding people who are at the top of the growth curve, who have total mastery of the position and who meet all the job requirements. If you hire people at a lower end of the growth curve, who are ready to leap into the unknown, and who are eager for new challenges, you will find a lot more potential sponsees.  And, you will also get years of energy and enthusiasm from them.  This is not to say we should not be hiring the best people we can find for our vacancies. I am only pointing out that “the best” person might not be the “most qualified” person.

Study your high potentials.  

How someone learns can be more important than what they know.  If you hired them for their potential, then you are going to get to test their learning capabilities and their mindset as they grow into their new role.  And, as you study their work habits and their motivation, you will also be validating your impression of their potential.  After all, you are not sponsoring a person for what she brings to the table today, you are investing in the future her.  You are anticipating future great accomplishments of the person they will become after the two of you team up to realize their potential.  To use a cliché, you are looking for diamonds in the rough. But, if you haven’t panned for diamonds in a huge, dusty, hot dirt field in Arkansas, then you may not understand what this means.  It means you squat in the dirt for hours with makeshift tools, looking for little dirty crystalline shards that barely stand out from the dirt and stones.  Studying your potential sponsees might be as labor-intensive, but, one might hope, not as dirty and hot.   

Pick carefully.  

Once you have hired and studied great high potentials, you’ll want to narrow things down and pick a person in whom you will invest.  Be careful not to look for a person who is a carbon copy of you.  Actually, there is plenty of literature to show that we tend to pick our people based on how much they are like us. This is one reason for the leadership gender and diversity gap that exists in the highest positions in industry and academics today.  If you want to be an exceptional sponsor who is exponentially contributing to the future, sponsor people who don’t look like you.  But, at the same time, look for sponsees who share your values, drive, and enthusiasm.   And, consider passing on people who always agree with you.  As a sponsor, you will gain much more from sponsoring an individual who brings something different to the table from what you bring.  Fresh ideas, different opinions, complementary skills will all be a long-term benefit to you as a sponsor and advocate.   And remember, this is a two-way street.  If you are not getting as much from a sponsee as you are giving, you might want to look elsewhere.  In other words, the rewards of sponsorship are many and not to be undervalued. We sponsors get as much as we give.

Be exclusive.  

Devote your sponsorship to one key sponsee.  You won’t have time to spend sponsoring more than one person. Your clout and credibility are finite and dividing them between sponsees will dilute the impact of your sponsorship.  And, especially avoid the trap of fairness.  If you’ve ever watched Shark Tank, you realize that the venture capitalists feel zero sense of obligation to be fair and equitable. They are looking to make a profit, not make people feel good or worthy.  If you have five direct reports, you do not owe sponsorship to all five of them, even if they are all equally good. As a sponsor, you are picking the one best investment, not diversifying your portfolio. This is not to say you do not owe anything to the other four and this is where mentorship becomes essential.  Just because we are concentrating our sponsorship efforts on one individual does not mean we ignore others. 

Communicate with your new potential sponsee.  

This is not the time for warm fuzzies, or platitudes, or generous statements of support. Giving and receiving sponsorship should be seen as more of a business transaction. It is an investment that comes with an expectation for future deliverables. The deliverable is the person’s future success.  Communicate your commitment and expectations to your sponsee and discuss the real potential implications of this new relationship.  

Now, start sponsoring.  

In her TedX talk, Carla Harris asked, “Who is going to bang the table for you?”  As a sponsor, you have now assumed the role of banging the table for, or at least quietly positioning, your new sponsee.  This means advocating for and publicly endorsing your sponsee.  Sponsorship does not happen exclusively in subtle, back-room conversations.  It should be apparent and obvious. Your sponsor should become known as “your person.”  Sponsorship means that you will assume reputational and credibility risk.  It means that you publicly stake your own reputation and clout on this person.  And, it means that you will constantly be thinking of ways to secure development and leadership opportunities for your sponsee.  If you have picked well, as a sponsor you will gain much from the highly generative sponsorship relationship.  You will also gain each time they deliver on a project you assign them.  But, most importantly, your credibility and clout grow and expand with every success of your sponsee, as others come to see you as someone who can “pick the good ones.”   I can only hope that my past sponsors have gotten some of that in their own careers.

This is part 3 in a three-part series on sponsorship.  Part 1 is a description of sponsorship and mentorship, and part 2 is strategies for becoming a sponsee.