Sponsorship is not a gift – learn how to invest in it and earn it
Interview with Sylvia Ann Hewlett, economist, author and speaker
European Business: In your book you write: “Sponsorship is much deeper and more rewarding than traditional mentorship”. Can you explain the main differences between sponsorship and mentorship?
Sylvia Ann Hewlett: It a nutshell, mentorship is a gift. A more experienced individual is giving advice to a younger person. Oftentimes it is pretty casual. Most professionals have lots of mentors throughout their career. It is a helpful relationship to have in your life.
Sponsorship on the other hand is an investment. A more senior person is taking on a younger talent. They identify someone who they feel is potentially a high performer. In fact, it is a big deal to truly develop and promote a younger person that you believe in. Of course, there are risks, and because of that you have to believe - wholeheartedly - in the ability of the more junior talent. Sponsorship grows organically over time. The younger person really needs to contribute value: to “give before he/she gets.” Sponsorship is something that cannot be given, it needs to be earned.
European Business: What are the main advantages of the sponsorship both for the sponsor and the protégé?
Sylvia Ann Hewlett: It is a great deal, for both the senior and the junior person. The junior person, according to my data, contributes really high performance. That´s number one. A senior would not sponsor someone who is not deliberate. Secondly, the younger person delivers trustworthiness and commitment. You won´t sponsor someone who is talking badly about the team on social media. You need to know that the person is committed to the team and to your company. And thirdly, the younger person is contributing a value-add in terms of a differentiated skill set or experience. He or she can deliver you knowledge you wouldn´t get otherwise.
And of course, we see advantages the other way round. The protégé is lifted up in all kind of ways by the sponsorship. The sponsor believes in your value, is developing you and encouraging you. And of course, understands the opportunities that you deserve to get, and has your back.
„Mentorship is a gift. Sponsorship on the other hand is an investment." Sylvia Ann Hewlett
European Business: If a leader is interested in sponsoring a protégé, where could he find someone who would like to be sponsored?
Sylvia Ann Hewlett: I think most leaders have extended teams, a whole range of talent. Sometimes it can be someone who is a little remote from you. That is a distance that can make a sponsorship work. As a leader you should look down to other groups. In many firms these days there are sponsorship initiatives that link seniors with upcoming talent. If you work in a company that doesn´t have this kind of initiatives, you can contact an employee research group or open your eyes to the pool of young talent.
But what we currently see in the data: white men are more likely to win a sponsor than women and people of colour. Oftentimes sponsorship is a kind of mini-me thing. Leaders find it much more comfortable to sponsor someone who looks like them and is in the same social circle.
I have written the book on sponsorship because I want to make the critical relationship more accessible and more transparent so that diverse individuals are better equipped, and senior leaders see the value in everybody when they cross lines of gender and ethnicity.
The book does three things: it is grounded in data. That is very powerful, it shows the value of sponsors and I think that this is central because we are so used to mentoring which is a gift and is often felt as a bit of burden by very busy seniors. What I want to communicate is that sponsorship is a piece of very immediate value. If you do it right, you get benefit next week. It should be seen as one of the best investments you can make.
„What we currently see in the data: white men are more likely to win a sponsor than women and people of colour." Sylvia Ann Hewlett
European Business: You wrote about the seven steps to effective sponsorship. Which step is the most difficult and time-consuming one for the leader aka the sponsor?
Sylvia Ann Hewlett: It is the step I call “Include”. There are 7 steps of investment in total. These are: Identify, Include, Inspire, Instruct, Inspect, Instigate, Invest. The Inclusion is very important. To proactively get to know and understand the value of someone who is different requires an approach to develop this relationship. For instance, I was working with a senior leader called Kevin Lord who was seeking out young African American talent and he met an extraordinary talent called Marsheila Hayes. He was involving her in giving him advice on his college-year son finding a profession he would love and he was helping her other way round.
European Business: Which skills and habits are important to have today when starting your career after finishing school, a traineeship or university?
Sylvia Ann Hewlett: I think it is very important to start building, what I call, relationship capitals. It´s not just about seeking sponsors, it also about sponsoring other people. I can give you an example. My daughter is in her twenties. She started her first job working at a policy thinktank. She was quite young, but she already realized that the thinktank had 14 interns. She started to invest in these individuals, and they invested in her. That’s a good example of how you can start early on: understanding that you cannot do everything on your own.
European Business: I read about the tool “Patreon” that helps creatives, artists and communities to find a sponsor. Do you think that this tool can be helpful and has potential for young entrepreneurs as well?
Sylvia Ann Hewlett: I think seeking out a sponsor is essential if you are an entrepreneur or artist. Just take Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein. The reason that he became so quickly famous was because Gertrude Stein took him on as a protégé. She was a poetry feminist and was in Paris in the early 20th century. She believed in Picasso, she loved his work, he painted a really famous portrait of her. A person like this in your life can help your career. Throughout history, anyone who wants to contribute something big to the world as an individual needs someone to open up further possibilities.
Interview: Vera Gaidies | Photos: Harvard Business Review Press