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3 ways leaders can help employees attract a sponsor

“Now, remember, Ben likes to shake things up; don’t be afraid to stand up to him.”

This was my boss, Eric, coaching me on an upcoming first-time meeting with a powerful VP in our organization. I was an ambitious young professional, recently hired from the outside and ready to make my mark at the new company. Eric realized my potential and arranged a meeting with Ben so that I could demo some new training materials that were being set up for Ben’s area of responsibility.

The meeting started well enough but then devolved into a train wreck as I struggled to maintain my composure with Ben’s “shaking things up.” He poked holes in my assertions, challenged my ideas and didn’t let up for almost 45 minutes. I left that meeting thinking, “I will never work for that man. He’s a tyrant.”

I received no sympathy from Eric. “I told you he was going to be tough,” my typically easy-going boss said in stern reproach. “Ben is a very influential player in the company, and if you want to advance, you’re going to have to impress him.” Luckily, Eric didn’t give up on me; he gave me other chances to shine in front of several executives (including Ben). Over time, I demonstrated my skills and was able to land several key projects and a promotion.

At the time, I didn’t realize it, but Eric was fulfilling an important leadership function: he was providing me with exposure to potential sponsors. Bonnie Marcus, author of “The Politics of Promotion,” defines a sponsor as “a high-level executive with the power to make things happen for you.” Leaders play a key role in helping their high-potential employees secure those executives who have the power to help advance careers.

Here are three ways you can help your employees attract a sponsor:

  1. Help them look past personality. For a while, I saw Ben as a “bully” and not someone from whom I’d want to learn. Eventually, I learned that his bark was far worse than his bite (his team affectionately called him “Mr. Prickly”), and that he had a stellar reputation for providing career opportunities. Eric understood that regardless of a prickly, aggressive nature, Ben had the power to make things happen for talented people, and it was important that I be given visibility to him. Encourage your team members to see that, despite poor first impressions, potential sponsors are worth getting to know.
  2. Coach them to make the “ask.” Part of a leader’s role is to help broker meetings (as Eric did for me with Ben) for the purpose of providing visibility for up-and-coming business colleagues. Eventually, your team members will need to learn to fly solo and begin to make those connections on their own. Coach them on making the “ask”; give them examples of when it would be appropriate to reach out on their own. Say, “You know, I think you should contact Maria directly. She’s seen you in action at our quarterly reviews; she’d be receptive to your e-mail. Let her know that you’d like her support on this upcoming project.” Doing this not only builds team members’ confidence, but it helps them demonstrate initiative, which potential sponsors value.
  3. Support sponsor development outside the company. Although encouraging your key players to develop external business relationships may seem counterintuitive, this practice pays dividends in the long run. The potential for employee poaching is small compared to the trust and goodwill you’ll gain from your team because of your willingness to think outside the company walls. At small companies, sponsorship opportunities may be scarce, so it’s important to help your employees broaden their viewpoint. Even in large organizations, having outside perspective is invaluable and will often lead to new and interesting opportunities.

When you provide your team with access to influential leaders in your organization, you have bestowed upon them a wonderful career-building opportunity. Not only does developing sponsors help their career, but yours as well, because you’ll be seen as someone who hires and develops talented people and has the wherewithal to help these high-potential employees bring continuing success to the organization.

Jennifer V. Miller is a leadership development consultant whose writing and digital training materials help business professionals better lead themselves and others towards greater career success. Follow her on LinkedIn and sign up for her free tip sheet: “Why is it So Hard to Shut Up? 18 Ways to THINK before you Speak.”

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