Don’t let the title of this article mislead you; I love mentors. I’ve been on the receiving end of several great individuals’ wisdom and support during my career. However, it’s the sponsors in my different organizations that advocated for me and opened doors to opportunities that challenged me to stretch, grow, and succeed in real-time.

Mentors and Sponsors—a Stark Difference

Mentors are interested in your development and serve as guides, dispensers of wisdom, and sounding boards for their mentees. They take an active interest in your growth; however, they typically don’t influence your activities and assignments in the present. These are valuable relationships that many of us will point to in future years as instrumental in shaping our approaches to leading and succeeding in our careers.

Sponsors are typically far from altruistic, and they’re most definitely not looking at you from a long-term perspective. These individuals have a need at the moment and are willing to take a risk on you meeting that need. If you succeed, everyone wins. If you fail, you can bet they’ve got someone right behind you ready to step in and tackle what you didn’t.

You Don’t Get Sponsored If You’re Not on the Stage

Jeffrey Pfeffer, in his excellent book, Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t, offers, “Someone always chooses you for success.” The sponsor is this “someone” who has just enough trust in you to believe you can stretch right now to solve a problem. She’s willing to take a calculated risk on you and give you the reins to something—a team, initiative, or vexing problem that no one else is solving.

A good manager recognizes talent and ambition and sponsors individuals for stretch assignments. However, in my experience, most sponsors are two or more levels above you and often in other functional areas. They have seen you in action leading teams or initiatives enough to have formed an impression of you as someone to draw upon for a current challenge. In my case, a couple of well-received presentations to the executive team were enough to get another unit’s VP to invite me to solve a big problem. My manager supported the move, and I was off to the races.

It’s a reality of organizational life that you can do a great job and be passed over for opportunities in favor of individuals with better visibility and stronger connections. Our coaching practice works with many excellent performers frustrated with slow career progression and a lack of fresh challenges. When we work together to assess the problem, lack of visibility is almost always a factor.

8 Tips to Increase Your Visibility and Gain Sponsorship

1. Succeed wildly at what you are doing today

Nothing breeds success like an emerging perception of you as someone who consistently delivers the right results. You want this foundation of credibility and reputation for success to serve as your springboard to gaining visibility and, ultimately, new and larger assignments.

2. Accept that cultivating influence is part of your job in your career

The idea of deliberately cultivating influence is challenging for some to accept. I make the case in other articles, and I coach and teach a process of developing “clean power.” Instead of playing games, you focus on cultivating relationships with individuals able to influence your situation and work to create value for them. No backs need to be stabbed or toes stepped on. However, you have to choose to engage.

3. Work weekly to develop your network(s)

Everything about cultivating influence and gaining sponsorship is based on relationships. Those with strong networks have access to individuals with specialized resources and quality, early information on emerging changes.

We teach clients to engage in a weekly routine for three key activities:

  • Which relationships should I start this week?
  • Which relationships should I renew this week?
  • Which relationships must I repair this week?

Choose individuals material to your efforts and your function’s or group’s success. Always strive to uncover ways to create value in these relationships. Building relationships is much different than collecting connections.

4. Ask to participate in events where you can grow your visibility

Ask your boss to involve you in meetings with other managers and functions. Volunteer to present in these settings. Volunteer to get involved or lead cross-functional problem-solving initiatives.

5. Learn to spot and act on opportunities in gray-zones

The gray-zones in organizations are those processes, communication, or collaboration challenges between functions or units. Everyone knows the issues are there, but no one seems to own solving them. Your hard work growing your network proves critical here as you strive to build coalitions to solve gray-zone issues. Effectively, you become a mini-sponsor with the opportunity to help others increase their visibility.

6. Tune-in to the significant issues and persuade a sponsor to choose you

You can wait and hope someone will choose you for more. In reality, others more adept at cultivating relationships and advocating for themselves will get the nod, leaving you to wonder why your excellent work isn’t being recognized and rewarded.

Don’t fall victim to, “I just do my job, and the rest will take care of itself” thinking. It’s nice but naïve.

Instead, learn to see those emerging significant issues from a new strategy, a restructuring, or marketplace challenges, and engage with those who can choose you to get involved. Make the case to the decision-maker(s) for you as a great choice, even if the opportunity is a stretch based on prior experience. It’s a good practice to involve your boss in the process, although I prefer to “keep them informed and ask for their support” approach versus asking for permission.

7. Leverage Successes for Progressively Larger Opportunities

Your most recent success is the admission ticket to your next opportunity. Continue to position yourself as a great choice to lead the new initiative. Emboldened by your current win, your sponsor or other sponsors will grow increasingly comfortable with you as a great choice.

8. Remember to Make Heroes out of Your Boss and Colleagues

While the process above may sound self-serving, I encourage you as part of your “clean power” approach to relentlessly advocate for those helping you succeed. Give visibility to the individuals helping you solve the big problems, and you’ll find yourself with a sudden surplus of reciprocity wealth you can draw upon in future settings.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

We all need someone to choose us to be successful. While you do the heavy lifting, it’s the individuals who sponsor you for new opportunities. Decide to walk out on the Stage and advocate for yourself. Those who perceive you are worth taking a chance on will step up and sponsor you for new opportunities. Your mentor will be proud!

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Suggested Resource: The Influence Course--an online, on-demand offering to help you cultivate clean power and advance in your career.