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If you’re not a manager, but you’ve wondered how you can help someone else grow in their career, this article is for you.

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"[in mentorship], the connection to actually getting promoted and actually getting developmental assignments, has been kind of diluted… [Sponsoring] has to do with fighting to get somebody a promotion, mentioning their name in an appointments meeting, and making sure that the person that you’re sponsoring gets the next assignment, and gets visible and developmental assignments."

Herminia Ibarra

While it’s true that people who have management responsibilities are uniquely positioned to give promotions and assign impactful work, there are so many ways to be a sponsor that don’t require that kind of explicit power. No matter your role, title, or amount of power, you can be a sponsor to other people today.

When I help folks brainstorm opportunities to be a sponsor to other people, I first encourage them to make a list of all the ways someone can be a sponsor within their organization. 

  • What are the mechanisms by which critical work (the kind that’s mapped to business goals) is assigned, recognized, and rewarded?
  • Who are the people making those decisions, and how can you advocate for someone new to receive those opportunities?
  • Are there meetings or decision-makers to which you have more access than others? You have the power to promote other people’s work in these contexts.

But sponsorship is not limited to opportunities within your organization! Start to think about all of the places in our industry where someone can share their knowledge or make an impact with their work. What hurdles are in the way of getting those opportunities? As a sponsor, you can help the person you’re sponsoring (your sponsee!) overcome those hurdles.

Real-life, non-managerial sponsorship examples

Here are just some examples of how you can be a sponsor without any management responsibilities, both inside of your organization and outside of it:

 

Inside your organization

Outside your organization

Ways to be a sponsor when speaking to your sponsee

  • Offer them an opportunity to shadow you at an important meeting.
  • Carve out and delegate visible and stretchy work to them that’s tied to business goals.

But mostly: Get to know your sponsee’s strengths, work product, impact of their work, and career stretch goals. It’s crucial to be on the same page as the person you’re sponsoring so you can set them up for success!

  • Suggest that your sponsee submit a talk proposal to a conference, and help them write/edit the proposal.
  • Buy them a ticket to a conference they want to attend.
  • Help them find a great coach, and pay for a few coaching sessions for them.

Ways to be a sponsor when speaking to others

  • Tell their manager about the good work your sponsee is doing, and the specific impact they’re having on business goals.
  • Vouch for them when promotion season comes around. Speak to their manager about the good work they’ve done, and the impact they’ve had. Tell others who have input in the promotions process too!
  • Suggest to people with decision-making power that your sponsee should lead an upcoming project, and outline the reasons why they’ll be great at it.
  • Suggest to agenda-owners that your sponsee should present their work/their team’s work at an upcoming all-hands meeting.
  • When someone asks for help, or asks a question relevant to your sponsee’s work, mention your sponsee’s expertise or impact to the business.
  • If your sponsee wants to do more public speaking, advocate on behalf of them to speak at a conference/event, especially if an event organizer reached out for you to speak. Pass the opportunity to your sponsee!
  • If your sponsee wants to do more public writing, advocate to publishers on behalf of your sponsee. Suggest them as a blog post contributor!
  • Share their work (talks, blog posts, case studies, open source projects they’ve created) on Twitter, LinkedIn etc.  Talk about the impact this work has had on you or on your organization’s business goals!
  • If you know someone who’s hiring for roles that match what your sponsee is looking for, mention their name and promote their work to the hiring manager.
  • Introduce your sponsee to a great mentor who has clout or expertise in an area your sponsee wants to grow in.


Notice how short the ‘when speaking to your sponsee’ row is! Most of the work of being a sponsor is invisible to the person you’re sponsoring. It’s important to be spending your time advocating on behalf of them to people with power; making their good work visible to others who aren’t familiar; and making sure that they are set up for success with opportunities that match up to their interests and how they want to grow.

You can be a sponsor in all of these different ways regardless of your role, title, and the size of your organization.

Sponsorship rules of thumb

Now, just because you can sponsor someone for an opportunity, doesn’t mean you should

Here are some rules of thumb to make sure that your sponsorship actually sets them up for success.

1. Always double opt-in intro

‘When introducing two people who don't know each other, ask each of them to opt-in to the introduction before making it.’ The double opt-in intro sets up any introductions (to mentors, hiring managers, conference organizers etc.) for success by getting consent to the introduction from both parties, and being specific about the purpose of the introduction.

2. Connect your sponsee’s work to business objectives

When speaking to people with power, emphasize the connection between your sponsee’s work, and the business impact of that work. Too often, feedback for members of minoritized groups is disconnected from business objectives, which then slows their careers. Members of minoritized groups also tend to be assigned glue work as extracurricular or stretch work, which is undervalued and rarely leads to career growth.

3. Stay up-to-date with your sponsee’s work and interests

Make sure that the opportunity you’re sponsoring someone for matches up with what they want to do and how they want to grow. Triple check with your sponsee that they want a particular opportunity before recommending them for it. Avoid putting them in the awkward position of turning down a huge opportunity that you’ve sponsored them for (imagine being offered a speaking gig, but being terrified of public speaking!).

This requires staying up-to-date with your sponsee on their recent work and interests. Check in (roughly) every quarter on what they’ve been working on, what impact they’ve had with that work, and what kinds of growth or leadership opportunities they’re on the lookout for.

4. Ask your sponsee what they need to succeed

Some people stop short of becoming sponsors because they’re worried that their sponsee might fail. For sure, your reputation is on the line as a sponsor; it’s your responsibility to help this person succeed as they grow and stretch into this new opportunity.

Ask your sponsee what they need to succeed with any new stretch project or role. Maybe they need feedback, a gut check, or some training. Maybe they need an “in” to get on an agenda, be hired at a company, or receive mentorship.

You have a responsibility to help them get that support. You can provide this help yourself if you’re able, or you can try to help them find the right person to talk to, or a helpful resource to reference. Avoid micromanaging, or stepping in to do any of the work yourself. Remember, these are opportunities for your sponsee to stretch and grow. Ask them what they need to succeed, trust their answer, and follow through with your support and encouragement.