How to Find Sponsors at Work (Open Thread)

how to find sponsors at workI recently took part in an alumni discussion on how to ask for raises and other negotiation tips. I was intrigued when a lot of women in the group raised their hands for advice, telling stories of how they failed to get the raise, job, or promotion they deserved, despite following all the best negotiation and advocating-for-themselves advice.  And over and over again, I found myself thinking, “she needed a sponsor.”  So today, lets talk about how to find sponsors at work. For those of you who do have sponsors, please share your stories — how did you find them and cultivate those relationships? For those of you who don’t — have you looked for a sponsor? Have you ever considered your direct boss your sponsor, or does it have to be someone slightly separate?

To review some vocabulary: a mentor is kind of like a life coach lite — they may or may not work at your company or even in your line of work, but they’re helpful for you to ask big questions (job, career, lifestyle, city, family), for you to learn from their paths, and generally helpful when it’s Decision Time. A sponsor is someone at your office who is involved (either directly or indirectly) in helping you get the work you want — or, ideally, will be writing your review or be in the room at the meeting and can be your advocate for the new job or promotion. (Or, going with our cheesy “seat at the table” imagery: a mentor helps you decide which seat to take at the table — but the sponsor helps you get in the room.)

(For my $.02, I’m not sure I ever had a legitimate sponsor in my legal career. There were certainly people in my corner, and people who said nice things about me — and I think I may have been “on the short list” at various points as a person who was good at X or had special knowledge in Y. But I’m not sure anyone in my legal career would have said, “oh, you haven’t met Kat? She’s fabulous, and you NEED her for this project.”

On the other hand, I think I did have a sponsor in my short journalism career — she became a boss and a good friend and mentor, but in early days she helped me get longform writing assignments at a time when most of my friends were relegated to fact-checking or writing mere paragraphs. She and I met at an internship (I was an intern, and she was a senior editor but not my direct superior) and we bonded because even though we were both working for a really “soft” magazine (Family Circle), we both had an understanding and appreciation of hard journalism. I only worked for her directly for about a year before I decided to apply and go to law school, but looking back I wonder if our sponsorship relationship would have continued the longer she was my direct boss — at a certain point advancing would have meant leaving, most likely for another publication. I’m not saying I was irreplaceable or that she would have been petty, but this kind of brings up shades of our old discussion on when your boss holds you back because you’re too good — as well as shades of how to quit when your mentor is your boss (it was really, really, really hard for me to tell her I was going to law school!))

In any event — at the alumni event I started whispering with one of the other panelists, and she confirmed that yes, she did have a sponsor at her investment bank — “it just kind of happened.  He and I had the same background, and the same interests, and we just kind of hit it off at work, and then he liked the work I did, so…” She trailed off and shrugged.  The next day, at breakfast with my male friend, I asked him if he had sponsors, and he said, “oh, definitely, at every new job I work to build a shadow network of people to advocate for me.” His advice was to seek the midlevels — and make sure they knew you personally and which projects you’d completed successfully.

So here’s a question for you guys: do you have sponsors? (Or, as my friend J called it, do you have a “shadow network”?) How do you find them, and how do you cultivate these relationships? Have you ever considered your direct boss your sponsor — or, on the flip side, have you ever taken a job directly working for your sponsor?

Picture credit: Deposit Photos / londondeposithow women can find sponsors at work - image of boardroom

GREAT DISCUSSION on how to find sponsors at work. Do you know the difference between a sponsor and a mentor (and why you need both)? Have you tried to find a sponsor for your career? Don't miss the comments section with female law partners weighing in and more!


  1. #1 and #2 :

    I am a partner in big law and have had two sponsors in my career. #1 is the reason I’m still at my firm after having two kids, and #2 is the reason I made partner. They both have pulled for me with the powers that be, and #1 (who is the reason I am still here) still does so continually. There are no senior women in my department, so both are male, and I developed both through their appreciation of my work from the beginning of my career at the firm. I can say with certainty that I would not still be here without #1 and I would not be partner without the support of them both, buy mainly the pull of #2. I think in many ways I was lucky to hit it off with both of them, but other than that, my only advice is to work hard, do really good work, and work a lot from the very beginning. People will notice.

  2. I have both had a sponsor and been a sponsor. Mentors are lovely, and necessary, but having a sponsor was what got me the better work, got me trusted with things earlier than my boss was ready to hand them over, and it helped me build my confidence. The sponsor I’m thinking of was a male, older than me by about 20 years or so, and though we’re all lawyers, we’re in higher ed admin; he was senior to me in the org, but not in my line of supervison. Our relationship began because we got along on a personal, social level (office banter, sense of humor, whatever), and he took an active interest in my development in the office.

    Being a sponsor, where you can, is also really powerful, and I encourage folks to try to find opportunities to do so in their worlds. Sometimes that means advocating for and sponsoring someone outside your stream of supervision, or your direct line of experience (in legal, think about a more junior paralegal or assistant), which can be hard if you are busy yourself or don’t know 100% of the details of their job. Get to know them a little, trust them with small things, then sing their praises and advocate for them to grow. It feels good, sure, but at the end of the day, it increases the quality of work and living in your workplace.

    • Also, to be a sponsor does not mean you have to be very senior or experienced. Be on solid footing yourself, professionally and with your credibility, but don’t think this is just something for the eccentric eye glasses and jacket senior woman partner. You can do this.

  3. I’ve had mentors but never sponsors. However, this is a great concept. I think its a good idea to have someone at your job who will speak highly of you and your work. It will definitely help you with climbing the corporate ladder if that’s what you’re trying to do.

  4. Not in law, but I have had one mentor for 3 years (to build my leadership skills; he is from the same company and was shortly my supervisor by coincidence) and one sponsor. I find value in both roles – I find that mentoring takes more time (ie mentor needs to set aside considerable time) and it helps you build your professional skills while sponsorship is less time-demanding – at least in my case. I was lucky since my direct supervisor became my sponsor from the day she joined the company. It was never something that we discussed, it happened naturally. She has high confidence of my work, we have open communication, we challenge each other and trust each other. She was able to push me to positions I was considered for, but she managed to speed the process up and now she is also doing me a great PR in the upper layers of our company.
    Having both, a mentor and a sponsor, is the reason why I managed to grow within the company fast, but also gave me the credentials and the knowledge needed so that I am respected and trusted by others.
    I had to choose and ask for a mentor. But I was selected by my sponsor. It was not me comming to her and asking her to be my sponsor.
    My recomendation on how to get a sponsor would be: Look at your key stakeholders and look 1-2 levels up in the org structure. Think about who would have the best chance to influence the selection processes and how this persons sees you and your work. Pock one or two and try to understand what are their values, their goals, how does their career look like, where are they heading. Take genuine interest in them and ask them for their feedback and/or some pointers. And then stay in touch. Talk to them about your latest successes, your career aspirations. If they like your work and see your potential, they will help you without you asking them directly for help. Just work hard, deliver, be dependable.

  5. I had a sponsor that I worked for directly for two years and indirectly for another two. It really gave my career a boost and I learned a tremendous amount from her. I lucked into that situation and I’m at a bit of a loss on how to get another sponsor.

    That said, I am big into sponsoring people junior or lateral to me – particularly women and people of color.

    I sit on the hiring committee at work and have pushed hard to reach out to more diverse networks when hiring, organization wide. This has also, not surprisingly, resulted in a larger and stronger pool of candidates to our organization.

    I now have a rep as having a “good eye” for talent and people take my recommendations on who to hire/promote seriously. I take care to always credit the person who did the work when presenting something and try to introduce my colleagues to people that I think would be helpful for them to know.

    This is all part of my trying to “be the change that I want to see in the world” but it’s had a positive impact on my career too. As the people that I’ve promoted move on to bigger and better things, they think positively of me and are willing to return the favor.

  6. This has been something I have struggled with as a remote employee. I’m currently working as part of my company’s women advocacy group to get a mentor/sponsor program in place for the virtual employees. I appreciate hearing from those of you who have had/been sponsors–great advice from all!

  7. CorporateInCarhartt :

    For me, the first part was building a reputation within the firm as someone who works hard, has a positive attitude, and delivers a very good work product. Working for as many partners as possible also helped in this aspect. The second part was talking frankly with “firm leadership” type partners about my career goals and about the firm itself. While the first part got me praise and good reviews, I believe that showing ownership of my career and interest in the future of the firm is what made people want to be my sponsors. I have several, and they have been invaluable in making sure people know who I am and giving me firm leadership opportunities or other opportunities that get me in front of partners in other offices (and also in front of clients). My sponsors are a mix of male and female partners; gender hasn’t seemed to matter for the most part.

    I also want to echo the above about paying it forward. Because I have the ear of folks in leadership, I take as many opportunities as I can to praise people who have really delivered, especially if they are people who may not otherwise be on their radar. I try to ramp it up around associate evaluation time (even though I’m still an associate myself – you can start advocating for others any time). And I think that has actually also given me a good reputation. Nothing wrong with generating good karma, regardless!

  8. I think Peer Mentoring at the workplace is a great way to get tips and ideas from someone who’s been down the same career road. If you’re not comfortable asking work colleagues or work in a small organization with very few mentors, why not check out outside options. Facebook groups are wonderful to post your career Qs – and plenty of people answer. Platforms like Maroon Oak have free peer mentoring and collaborations options.

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