Go Beyond Coaching and Mentorship and Get Started as a Sponsor

How to use your power, influence, and networks to help protégés in their long-term professional career development.
Mar 13, 2019

Federal employees like to help each other. In the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, employees consistently respond positively (PDF, 38 pages, 1.8 MB) to the prompt, “The people I work with cooperate to get the job done.”

Team cooperation is critical in daily tasks. We’re also often quick to give advice: mentoring programs have proliferated in all types of organizations, including government agencies. Beyond mentorship is another practice called sponsorship: action-orientated, deeply invested support that helps others in their long-term professional advancement.

Leadership concept art of chalk drawings of a large, yellow fish leading smaller white fish across a blackboard.

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The Difference Between Coaching, Mentoring, and Sponsorship

OPM defines mentoring as “a process that focuses specifically on providing guidance, direction, and career advice.” Mentors typically are (or were) in the same field and roles as their mentees.

Conversely, “coaching’s primary emphasis is on maximizing people’s potential by working on their perceptions, self-confidence and creative drive.” A coach does not need to have expertise in their coachee’s career field, since they don’t typically give advice. Instead, coaches guide others to create their own solutions.

Sponsorship goes beyond mentoring and coaching. Sponsors use their power, influence, and networks to help protégés, and they invest long term:

  • “They advocate and find opportunities for promotion and career development.
  • They open up their network and accelerate the learning curve for team members who might otherwise fall through the cracks.
  • [They] are the equivalent of angel investors for individuals: they take risks on talent, help nurture that talent, and identify opportunities for that talent to catapult to the next stage.” (Project Include)

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist who has written extensively about sponsorship, summed it up well in a Harvard Business Review article: “Mentors proffer friendly advice. Sponsors pull you up to the next level.”

Why Sponsorship?

Research has shown that sponsorship is important for career advancement, particularly when employees begin to compete for upper management positions. A lack of sponsorship has shown to be a barrier to advancement for women (PDF, 28 pages, 893 kb) and underrepresented racial and ethnic populations.

Sponsorship gives employees a statistical career benefit and results in more employees negotiating for raises. This is especially important in the tech industry, where wage inequality is widespread.

Agencies can also benefit from sponsorship: sponsors report (PDF, 28 pages, 893 kb) an increase in job satisfaction, commitment to their organization, and a desire to “pay it forward.” Team morale also improved; people were willing to go the extra mile for their teammates as a result of strong relationships.

Getting Started as a Sponsor

Anyone can be a sponsor, even if you do not hold a formal leadership position. Where do you have power, influence, connections, and networks? Think about (and write down!) all the ways in which you hold formal or informal authority.

In addition to your daily work colleagues, consider who you know from: local meet-ups, interagency working groups, professional associations, non-profit organizations, volunteer projects, affinity groups, alumni networks, hobby groups, to name a few.

Although you probably won’t use every network/connection you have in a sponsor relationship, it’s important to understand the various ways in which you have influence.

Practical Tips for Being a Sponsor

Identifying a protégé

Looking at the networks you thought about above, write down a short list of people that you think have great potential. You may already have a mentee through a formal program; are you willing to also sponsor them?

Consider the attributes you have seen that caught your attention: what are their strengths? What are their challenges? Brainstorm some initial ways you could help them grow, by connecting them with opportunities or people in your network.

Getting Started

Sponsor relationships can be formal or informal. A formalized relationship may not be ideal for you and your potential protégés. You also may find yourself being an “invisible sponsor” for someone; you might speak positively and advocate for someone without them knowing it. All forms of sponsorship are worthwhile!

Realistically, you’ll only have time for a small number of on-going, formalized sponsor relationships. It’s important for you to encourage your protégés to have multiple sponsors.

There are numerous questions to ask a protégé that can help you get started. For formal sponsor relationships, discuss the frequency of meetings and communication preferences. Additionally, agree on what confidentiality means: as a sponsor, you will be an advocate for your protégé. Sharing their accomplishments and goals is important. However, you will likely have conversations that touch on opinions and experiences that are private or deeply personal. Discuss with your protégé the types of information that should remain between the two of you (and revisit this throughout your relationship).

Additionally, discuss your goals! What do you hope to get out of the relationship with your protégé?

Take Action

There are many ways that sponsors can advocate for their protégés on a regular basis.

Draft a list of opportunities, both one time and on-going, where you could sponsor your protégé. Think of both highly visible opportunities (representing your program at a work meeting; writing a blog post for your agency’s website) as well as strategic opportunities (introducing your protégé to someone who has influence in a relevant area; encouraging them to raise their hand for a stretch assignment that they otherwise wouldn’t consider).

Need additional ideas for your list? Other sponsor opportunities include:

  • Weekly or monthly reports that go “up the chain,” where you can mention their name and their work
  • External organizations that need volunteers for high-quality projects
  • Working groups to join
  • Conferences, both from an educational and networking perspective
  • Professional certifications or classes
  • Recognition/awards given by external organizations
  • Departments or agencies that need help on a short-term basis: the Open Opportunities program connects federal employees with projects from around the government

Give Feedback

Feedback is a critical component of professional growth and a “micro-sponsorship” opportunity. Many people struggle to give clear, actionable and constructive feedback, particularly when addressing interpersonal challenges or poor performance. Research shows that vague feedback holds employees back, and your protégé may suffer from unclear feedback or an absence of it altogether.

There are a variety of tools and articles written on giving feedback: the Situation-Behavior-Impact Feedback Tool (SBI) is an easy to use, three step model, and the Radical Candor framework encourages people to “care personally” and “challenge directly.”

For protégés that you work with on a regular basis, consider meetings or projects from the past year. What went well, what needs improvement, and what do they need to advance in their career?

For those whom you interact with irregularly, consider reviewing their portfolio, LinkedIn, or other public-facing professional products. Can you write a recommendation or testimonial based on past collaborations?

Connect with your agency’s Office of Human Resources to see what types of mentoring, coaching, or sponsorship programs they offer.

All references to specific brands, products, and/or companies are used only for illustrative purposes and do not imply endorsement by the U.S. federal government or any federal government agency.

Ashley Wichman is a Program Analyst in the Technology Transformation Services (TTS) at the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) and is enthusiastic about helping teams work better together. Have questions for Ashley about employee engagement? Send her an email: ashley.wichman@gsa.gov.