Keeping your career on track : The role of Sponsors

Even if you are at the top of your game, it will be hard to make some moves without a sponsor. A sponsor is someone who will fervently recommend you being in the job you want to be in, and has influence with the hiring manager or organization. Sometimes, your boss can be your sponsor.  Often however having your boss as a sponsor will fall short of getting you where you want to go even internally unless they have significant influence across domains, disciplines and upline.  And probably your boss won’t be your biggest advocate if you are changing organizations while you are at it!

For any hiring decision, there will be from one to a group of decision makers and influencers. If you have one or more sponsors in that group, it can make a major difference. Maybe there are no other candidates but usually you’ll be in competition with some alternative. Someone arguing your case on the inside is precious.

I have had many sponsors over the years. They came from all levels. They were previous managers who I kept in touch with, executives and colleagues I worked on projects with, senior leaders I managed to meet with and impress….somehow. My stories in this blog are internal IBM stories. I was lucky, I was able to stretch and stretch and stretch within the same company over 23 years.  But the principle works the same with people outside your current company.

I think my most potent sponsor story is how I got from France to the US.  I wanted to move back to the United States after 15 years working for IBM in France. As an IBM France employee, I needed to be hired like any other external employee and external headcounts were extremely hard to get because of an impending major resource action.

I looked in the internal job directory and saw that a hiring manager for a role I was interested in was a colleague I had worked with on a major launch, Lisa Stichert. We had enjoyed working together but hadn’t really stayed in touch. I sent her an email asking about the role and letting her know about my goal to come back to the US.

We had a quick conversation.  I had not even told my boss in France yet about my goal it was so fresh – and he was on vacation. Before the week was out, she had approvals all the way up the line.  The final approver was Buell Duncan, an executive leader I had met once in person and had the great luck to be able to have lunch with on a sunny Parisian terrace.  Ha! I like to think he remembered me because I took a controversial stance on the need to move to cross brand marketing (he was our Software marketing leader!).  It was probably the sunny terrace, but there you go.

The point is, you never know who will be in a position to be a sponsor down the road.  Nor do you know what will be the thing that makes you stand out.  Sometimes you can identify a sponsor in your network proactively and drive towards your career goals. But sometimes sponsors can come and find you (thus the importance of planting those seeds I talked about in my last blog!)

So – never stop learning, set goals for yourself and find sponsors for your next opportunities.  Next I’ll talk about mentors and the role they play.