The Role Of The Executive Sponsor

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 advises you on career choices, provides some inputs, and possibly open some doors. The sponsor, however, pushes your career development. They help you land bigger jobs, and push to promote you. A sponsor has “skin in the game” and is willing to have others take a bet on you and your success. 

Most corporate organisations have introduced talent development, succession planning processes, and even systems to e-enable these processes. Talent review and calibration sessions are often performed with leadership teams to get all inputs and observations on talent. Usually, there is one senior sponsor for each talent. However, 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 they possess to influence your career. An influential sponsor can help you grow very fast. Your often 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 help you succeed; your failure would be his or her failure, as well.

Secondly, if your one (and only) sponsor moves on or drops off, the talent loses their sponsorship and is left alone. I’ve seen many “HiPo” talents moving from hero to zero in a short period of time. Suddenly, the talent rating or learning agility scores are going down.  

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. 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. 

Second, I believe it is critical to maintain good sponsorship relationships and to strike a balance between all sponsors. You may need different sponsors for different situations or career transitions. 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, often sponsors and their “protégées” have a lot in common. It could be the national, religious, or ethnic origin, similar educational history, or other similar behavioral 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 organizations – regardless of if they deserve it. It is a critical skill when building a corporate career.  

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