Mentorship and sponsorship are both highly valuable ways to cultivate leaders, but career sponsorship remains less discussed and understood despite the significant impact it can have on career progression. I’ve been lucky enough to benefit from both throughout my career. 

Mentors taught me everything from the ins and outs of pricing strategy to how to write concisely for impact, because no pricing theory or business writing class can prepare you for the reality of the workplace quite like a mentor with a few years of experience on you. Sponsors allowed me to observe close-up how things worked at higher levels, provided me access to opportunities and advocated for me in rooms I couldn’t yet access. In many ways, while mentorship is critical to early career progression, sponsorship is more vital to fostering long term career progression into leadership. 

Let’s explore the essential elements of sponsorship that make it a uniquely valuable experience:

  • Deeper relationships. Sponsorship fosters deeper connection, as you work alongside someone one or two levels above you within your organization, sharing context and experience. 
  • Broader awareness. The working relationship with sponsors allows you to observe, experience and learn from their world firsthand, in most cases years ahead of what is otherwise possible.
  • Longevity. Sponsorships endure as long as you continue to invest in the connection, sometimes spanning roles, companies, and careers. 
  • Access and advocacy. The best way to find a sponsor is to consistently produce surprisingly great work. Having benefited from the quality of your work, your career sponsor is in senior-level conversations putting your name forth for opportunities and advocating for your career growth.
  • Mutual value. Sponsors value and respect you and are just as likely to be inspired by your ideas as you are by theirs.

A wealth of experience

In my experience, hearing “This is how you become a leader” rarely helps as much as observing a leader in action. My sponsors allowed me to observe close-up how things worked at higher levels, learning from their successes, failures, as well as the things they didn’t attempt or prioritize. 

Attending executive meetings with my sponsors, I saw firsthand the preparation before meetings, the different styles of run of show, and the interactions between attendees. This helped me gain the know-how as well as the confidence to interact with leadership, and to prepare for, attend, and run my own executive meetings years later. 

One sponsor was particularly good at the leadership principle of disagreeing and committing with her team. It was always so impressive to watch her put her own reservations aside so her people and their ideas could move forward, earning her tremendous respect and influence with her team and peers. The ability to say “I disagree and commit to helping the team achieve success and learning with the team from failure” is best grasped through experience. I learned by experiencing through my sponsor.

It was not just about learning what worked. I learned just as much from seeing what did not work for my sponsors. One sponsor would prepare for meetings by waking up early and spending hours memorizing every metric, only to have his leader ask about the one metric he did not have. As a data professional, people expect you to know the numbers. My experience with this sponsor helped me get comfortable with the idea that I am never going to be able to know every number. I just need to know how to quickly find any number using tools, in dashboards and by delegating to others. I also need to be able to confidently say “I don’t have the answer, but I’ll take it as an action item to follow up after the meeting.”

Women wanted

McKinsey's Women in the Workplace 2022 research found that “Women leaders are switching jobs at the highest rates we’ve ever seen...Women are already significantly underrepresented in leadership...And all of these dynamics are even more pronounced for women of color.” These findings are a reminder of the challenges we face in getting women into leadership and boardrooms, and the increasing importance for women and allies who are already in leadership to lean into sponsorship. By doing so we can provide access and advocate for high potential women, cultivating more diverse pipelines of top talent.

Starting a career sponsorship program

Looking to start a sponsorship program in your data organization? Here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Access to context. Data organizations are the strategic advisors to the business. We hold the key to unlocking insights that drive strategy and execution for the company, but only if we have the right context. Sponsorship can accelerate the growth of data careers by providing access to broader context at higher levels. 
  • Pay attention. In meetings and around the workplace, listen, show interest, and think about the people who display potential. Consider ways to amplify their impact through sponsorship.
  • People first. Even with the best programming, sponsorships will falter without people who really care. Look for people in leadership positions who are equally passionate about bringing high-potential people up. Brainstorm and work together on creating a formal program.
  • Innovate. Sponsorship doesn’t have to follow a strict definition or be bound by convention. Encourage feedback, embrace new ideas, build on the things that work and learn from the things that don’t.
  • Scale. While most sponsorships are one to one, one sponsor matched to many employees can also work. Scale by having regular forums for small sponsorship groups to check in, and milestone gatherings for entire sponsorship classes to share ideas, learnings, and experiences. 
  • Measure. Define easy-to-understand input and output measures of success. Build tools to track progress, encourage accountability, and celebrate wins.  

Like the very best relationships in life, great career sponsorships are built on hard work, collaboration, curiosity, and respect. It is hard to imagine any organization that wouldn’t benefit from more of these qualities