Leadership Development
Talent Outcomes

The Role of the Executive Sponsor

Lisa Danels
published on March 15, 2017

During my career in corporate organisations I was lucky to have had senior sponsors who helped me progress. With hindsight, I realised how valuable this has been in my career. I have also had an experience where I lost an executive sponsor and I left the organisation shortly after.

Sponsors are vital in building and accelerating your career and once you lose sponsorship in an organization it is very difficult to advance your career.

A Sponsor is different to a mentor, a mentor does not push your career development, a mentor only advises you on career choices, provides some inputs and possibly open some doors. The sponsor, however, helps you land bigger jobs, at times you only realise after the fact of your promotion that there has been someone senior pushing for this decision to promote you. In reality, a sponsor has “skin in the game” and is willing to have others take a bet on you and your success.

Most corporate organizations introduced talent development and succession planning process and even systems to e-enable these processes. Talent review and calibration sessions are often performed with leadership teams in order to get all inputs and observations on talent. Usually, there is one senior sponsor for each talent in such a setting. My hypothesis is that one sponsor is not good enough to make a successful career. First of all, it depends on how your sponsor is perceived in the team and how much power he has to influence career decisions. An influential sponsor can help you grow very fast and often your career depends on the career development of the sponsor – a weak sponsor cannot help you as he will not influence key talent decisions. Moreover, if a sponsor helped you to land a stretch assignment, he or she will be invested and will hence help you succeed – your failure would be his or her failure as well. Secondly, if the one (and only) sponsor is moving on or dropping off, the talent loses his sponsorship and is left alone in the woods to fend for him or herself. I’ve seen many “HiPo” talents moving from hero to zero in a short period of time. All of a sudden, the talent rating or learning agility scores are going down, even performance can be assessed differently – career is grounded.

What does this mean for your own career development?

First, it is critical to have at least one executive sponsor in an organization, but don’t rely too much on one sponsor. The risk of dependence on one sponsor is simply too high. Finding a second or even third sponsor is important to build a sustainable career in a corporate and mitigate the risk of one sponsor exiting the organisation. In order to be successful in identifying the right sponsors, it requires political savvy and a keen awareness of who is coming in and out of the decision making power.

Secondly, I believe it is critical to maintain good sponsorship relationships and to strike a good balance between all sponsors. Meaning, you may need different sponsors for different situations or career transitions. There could be one immediate sponsor which is key for your next move or promotion, while one or two other sponsors will be needed later in your career. It is crucial to have a long-term perspective when it comes to your career planning. Ask yourself: what comes after what comes next? Who can help me with my mid-term career goal? Who would be a good mentor and who could become a good senior sponsor? If you know the answers, focus on building the relations and stay close. Sponsors will support you when they know what you can deliver. Be bold about it. Executives always appreciate mentoring, sharing their own experience and giving young talent career advice. Make them your sponsor without them knowing.
One last observation is that often sponsors and their “protégées” have a lot in common, could be the national, religious or ethnic origin, similar educational history, or other similar behavioural traits. I am not arguing that this is a conscious choice of the sponsor though.
Employees who are strong in managing their sponsors will make it very far in corporate organisations – whether deserved or not. It is a critical skill to build a corporate career.