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July 5, 2013This month, we’ll be focusing on the power of sponsorship: what it means, why it’s important, and how to get it. We’re kicking off our coverage with today’s guest blog post by a Dublin-based Diversity & Inclusion professional who shares some practical tips for attracting a sponsor. As we delve into this timely and critical topic, please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments section below!

If you are a woman trying to advance in business today, no doubt you’ve heard how important it is to have a sponsor. HBR research and Catalyst research describe a sponsor as a powerful backer who recognises talented individuals, pushes them to achieve their full potential, and advocates for their advancement.

Like many, I recently read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In.  I found elements of chapter five (“Are You My Mentor?”) particularly refreshing. Sandberg describes being introduced to junior businesswomen and the first thing they’d say to her was, “Will you be my mentor?” 

She could easily have made the same point about sponsorship. You can’t jump-start your career advancement merely by asking someone to be your mentor or sponsor.

So how do you heed the message and get yourself a sponsor? You might be lucky enough to work for an organisation that has a fantastic formal sponsorship programme in place. Personally, I am an advocate for such programmes; however, I can’t help but feel that “natural sponsorship” has the edge.

The predicament for many women is that they understand the benefits of sponsorship, but may not yet be senior enough to access their organisations’ formal sponsorship programmes—or perhaps there is no programme in place where they work. And of course when it comes to informal sponsorship, we can’t choose our sponsors; they must choose us. 

My advice is to stop trying to find a sponsor, and focus on helping a sponsor find you. Ask yourself, “why might a sponsor choose me?”

Sponsorship has played a part in almost all of the significant milestones in my career to date. The first time it happened, I wanted a role and was pretty sure I could do it, but I lacked the requisite technical experience. A global leader I worked with at PwC supported, pushed, and vouched for me. It was my sponsor’s voice advocating on my behalf that made the firm comfortable taking a chance on me, a chance that got me my first management position. 

But, why did he help me? I figure it is thanks to three core principles I always try to practice. Adopting this approach won’t guarantee you a sponsor, but it may put you in a much stronger position to attract one:

  1. Always give more. Never deliver solely what you are asked for; think about what might come next, and always aim to deliver two steps ahead. This is the first concept I share with anyone who reports to me. When you get into the habit of always thinking ahead, leaders will notice you, value you, and look for your input. And when you need someone to advocate for you—yes, you’ve got it, they’ll do that too!
  2. Broaden your scope.  Actively seek opportunities to work on cross-functional/subject-matter projects.   Empower yourself to make an impact beyond your direct sphere of influence. Give others a taste of your capabilities, and when opportunities arise, the people you’ve impressed may be the ones to think of you, vouch for you, or even hire you!
  3. Leave a lasting impression. When I start a new role I always see it as one stepping stone in a much larger journey, and I am always eager to make sure that when I move onto the next stepping stone my current leader will not just vouch for me, but actively want to work with me again. Maybe not tomorrow; but maybe in five years’ time when she or he has moved into a new leadership role and is assembling a team. This way you might be one of the first people called upon to join!  

Every person and organisation is different, but smart leaders figure out how best to showcase their talents—and it is when we do this that the right people will take notice.

Aoife Flood is Senior Manager of the Global Diversity & Inclusion Programme Office for PwC International Limited and co-author of PwC’s Global Gender Agenda blog. She is based in Dublin, Ireland. You can learn more about Aoife here