875654-lunch-meetingWhen asked for a show of hands by those who had sponsors, about 20 of 200 lawyers present raised their hands.  When asked how many of those sponsors were powerful people who could help get them promotions, raises or high visibility assignments, most of the hands went down.  I conducted this exercise at the annual mountaintop retreat last weekend of the Women Lawyers of Utah to emphasize the difference between sponsors and mentors and how landing sponsors, not just mentors, can more quickly advance your career.

Compare the advice “Jodie” received from a few close lawyer friends to “stop apologizing so much” to the introduction and subsequent recommendation a senior lawyer gave to another senior lawyer – “You should hire Jodie.  She’s perfect for this job.”   He did.   Mentoring prepares people to move up.  Sponsorship makes it happen.

Although sponsorship is not a new concept, it is getting a lot of attention lately, particularly thanks to economist and author Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s latest book, Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor.   Harvard Business Review Press, 2013.  Hewlett uses a two year study of over 12,000 professionals for her proposition that powerfully positioned champions, unlike mentors, make measurable differences in career progress.

As Hewlett writes, mentors talk with you at lunch.  They act as a sounding board, offering advice, support and guidance, and they expect very little in return. An informed mentor knows the lay of the land in the firm or office, can help you understand the unwritten rules and navigate the corporate ladder.

Sponsors, on the other hand, talk about you at lunch.  They are influential champions who advocate on their protégés’ behalf, connecting them to important players and assignments.  And by doing so, they make themselves look good.  These are mutually beneficial arrangements where the sponsor’s reputation vouches for the protégé’s legitimacy and abilities, and the protégé’s loyalty and stellar performance enhance the sponsor’s position.   Unlike a mentor, a sponsor is someone who goes to bat for you, pounds on the table and uses his or her political capital to open doors to opportunities.  And because a sponsor is someone who puts their reputation on the line for you, you have to earn the relationship rather than have one appear in the doorway of your office.

Next time, Part II, putting together your sponsor playbook page.