While there is no single predictor of a successful consulting career, finding powerful sponsors is one of the proven forces to put you on the fast-track. We hope the ideas presented in this article, and the real-life examples that illustrate them, will stir your thinking about how your career can benefit from sponsorship.
Mentors versus sponsors
Mentors and sponsors play different roles. At its core, mentors advise while sponsors act.
Mentors: Mentor provides advice and guidance, a sounding board and a shoulder to “cry” on. Mentor will listen to your issues and help you consider various alternatives.
It is easier to get a mentor than to find a sponsor and they will expect less from you. Mentoring someone means providing advice, so it plays to person’s ego. It is safe and easy.
Sponsors: Sponsor may also advise but his or her main role is to raise your profile within the organization. A sponsor puts some of his or her political capital on the line to move your career forward by advocating for promotions, pay raises and important assignments.
Of course, if you over-deliver, the sponsor’s political capital will increase instead of decrease. But it is a gamble for a sponsor since he or she has no control over your performance and your true commitment to the firm. Sponsors unlike mentors have their skin in the game. They take a form of equity in your reputation.
It is harder to find a sponsor versus a mentor because sponsorship requires a lot more effort and it is risky. Sponsoring means advocating on your behalf, representing your interests within the organization, sticking a neck out to help you raise your profile. Sponsors fight battles on your behalf. They intervene and make their presence known.
In exchange sponsors expect high performance, reliability and loyalty. Sponsorship is a two-way street.
Cheryl Sandberg is a good example of what sponsorship can do for one’s career. Sandberg is obviously an individual with above average capabilities, but what propelled her career forward, as she herself acknowledges, is sponsorship from Lawrence Summers.
He selected her as his research assistant and later took her to the World Bank and the United States Treasury where her role at the age of 29 was his chief of staff. This would position anyone for a phenomenal career opportunities and visibility to the likes of Mark Zuckerbeg at Facebook and Eric Schmidt at Google.
11 ideas to help you find a sponsor and nurture the relationship
To find a sponsor you have to impress influential and powerful people. They must think investing in you is worth their time and effort. If there is a good fit sponsorship becomes a deeply productive relationship that is as beneficial to the sponsor as to the protégé.
Below are 11 ideas to help you find a sponsor and nurture the relationship. The ideas are directional, not definitive. And they are based on my own experiences in both consulting and banking.
1) Do amazing work and be reliable. A strong work ethic is one of the top qualities senior people are looking for when deciding to sponsor someone. Never drop the ball and make important things happen. Remember, sponsors have to put some of their political capital on the line. So you need to consistently deliver. The easiest way to find a sponsor is a display of sustained high performance.
2) Be loyal and trustworthy. Sponsorship is a two-way street. Sponsoring someone is risky and takes effort. So sponsors expect some degree of absolute loyalty from you, as well as trustworthiness. These two qualities, along with consistent high performance and reliability, are notably vital to keep your sponsor invested in you.
If you turn on your sponsor, they will withdraw their support.
3) Be hungry. Remember that sponsoring involves putting sponsor’s reputation on the line to move your career forward. So sponsors want to know you have the drive to see things through if an opportunity is given to you.
4) Target suitable sponsors. Identify 2-3 influential and powerful people, ideally two levels above you, who you want to be your sponsor. The more senior the better, though they should have some influence over your operational duties. Look for every opportunity to work with them and help them.
A good place to start is to understand what your target sponsors truly value and why, how, when and where. Then deliver exactly that value, no more and no less.
If you will manage to get on the project with one of your target sponsors, go all out. You need to leave the best impression possible. Most likely, your target sponsor will notice that you stand out and will start keeping you close: ask for your help, put you on important projects, etc.
They will rely on you, which reinforces the relationship.
This is already a type of sponsorship because in management consulting good people stay busy. So if you are busy, it implies you are a good management consultant and you are valuable to the consulting firm.
Also keep in mind that you need to periodically evaluate if you picked the right target sponsors. You may learn that a target sponsor you picked and invested time and effort into is not worth the effort. Sometimes, a sponsor may be sabotaging you.
If after reasonably sufficient effort from your side, your target sponsor is not delivering on his/her side of the deal, you may need to find another target sponsor. Nevertheless, don’t worry, you have not wasted time. At the very least there is one more person now who will say good things about your work.
Just be careful not to damage the relationship as you switch your focus to nurturing a relationship with another potential sponsor. Find some excuse so it is not taken personally. One good excuse is to say that you realized you are really interested in the type of work some other colleague is doing.
It is crucial not to hurt the sponsor’s feelings when you leave. The last thing you want is a senior person who thinks you are transactional in nature.
5) Internal projects help get the lay of the land. Get involved in an internal project that requires interaction with the firm’s leadership. This will allow you to work with a lot of senior people so you can get a better idea on whom to target to be your sponsors. This will also increase your visibility with senior people within the firm.
When picking the internal project, hold off until something worthy comes along. Conducting any project just to get exposure is often not worth it.
6) Hedge your bets. Turnover is a big issue in management consulting. If you channel all your efforts to build a relationship and credibility with only one senior person and this person leaves the firm, you may lose years of investment. Aim to have at least two sponsors within the organization and at least one sponsor outside the consulting firm, to keep your options open.
I received this advice many years ago during my first year in management consulting. I worked with the same consulting partner, lets call him James, for many months. One of the principals told me I need to invest in building relationship with other partners because James may leave the firm, just like anyone else, so it is not wise to put all my eggs in the same basket.
Unfortunately, I did not listen to the advice. It just seemed at the time against my values to purposefully dis-invest from my relationship with James to build up options for myself. I was part of his posse. He had 2-3 people within the firm he relied on and I was one of them. It was a tremendous honor.
As you probably guessed, James was gone within a few months after I received this advice. He went on to run a private equity business. James remained my sponsor, but now he was an external sponsor.
In fact, as he was leaving he told me, “If you start a business, my firm will back you“. So he indicated that he will continue to sponsor me even after he left the firm because he believed in me. The issue was that I was not ready yet to start my own business. I wanted to continue my path towards becoming a strategy consulting partner. And I had to find another sponsor fast.
So, I would strongly advise to hedge your bets against sponsor leaving the firm and nurture relationship with multiple people.
7) Join external groups or initiatives. If you have capacity and willing to invest to find a sponsor externally, joining a non-for-profit board in your field or some other initiative or group where you will interact with influential people is the best way to meet people who are otherwise “untouchable”. For example, world famous businessmen, academics, writers or politicians. Yet, make sure you choose an initiative you are genuinely interested in. Otherwise, when the going gets tough, you will either really struggle to stay motivated or will quit.
And do not join “weak” non-profits. There are many of them and they suck up time and teach you little. Select wisely.
A good case in point is how Tim Ferriss used this trick to get hold of “untouchable” person, which resulted in getting a book deal for The 4-hour Workweek, which turned into a No. 1 New York Times bestseller and launched Tim’s career.
Long before Tim wrote his first book, back when he was just an average college grad, he volunteered for the Silicon Valley Association of Start-Up Entrepreneurs and offered to organize an event.
His motivation for volunteering was to get to know the invited guest speakers. Tim used the event as an excuse to meet important people. One speaker he decided to invite was Jack Canfield, co-creator of Chicken Soup for the Soul. Tim cold-emailed Jack to speak at the conference and their friendship started from this point.
Tim kept the relationship going by keeping in touch via email long after the event and eventually Jack introduced Tim to A-list book agents when Tim was ready with his first book proposal.
8) Find mentors and turn them into sponsors. It is easier to start a relationship with influential people where they provide mentorship rather than sponsorship. Mentorship is a low stakes relationship for them. They don’t have to do much work or risk their reputation.
Yet, you can use this mentorship relationship to build trust and credibility over time to the point that your mentor sees you as an incredibly reliable and talented person, a rising star. Most likely, over time your mentor will become comfortable enough to evolve into being your sponsor.
9) Give it time. Relationships take time to develop. It always surprises me when younger consultants say they had one meeting and it was not useful. It takes several meetings to gauge a relationship. You have to invest over many months, consistently displaying high performance, reliability, loyalty and trustworthiness before an average sponsor will be comfortable enough to stick his or her neck out for you.
Often people within the firm will sponsor you naturally if you have done outstanding work for them for at least 6 months, better a year. The more they know you, the longer you worked for them without ever dropping the ball, the more comfortable they will be with talking you up.
One thing to remember is to never drop the ball. Even if you are tired and feel you can’t finish the work, either find someone to finish it instead of you or renegotiate the deadline, or finish it no matter how tired you are.
As Stephen King said, “Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work”.
10) Two-way street. Sponsorship should be a mutually beneficial alliance. If you have a sponsor, you are likely a part of his or her powerful posse of younger consultants elbowing, pushing and assisting the sponsor. This is a transactional relationship. The protégé’s role is to always deliver excellent results, be loyal to the sponsor, and add value whenever possible to help strengthen sponsor’s profile and further the sponsor’s interests within the organization.
11) Search for sponsors with real power. Try to find sponsors with real power within the management consulting firm. It is human nature to target a sponsor whom we see as a role model or similar to us. Yet, ask yourself what do you really need from a sponsor? Does this really matter?
Even if a sponsor differs greatly from you and you don’t plan to emulate their leadership style, as long as your sponsor is well positioned to play the role well – help you get promoted, help you get important assignments, raise your profile – that is what you have to focus on. You need not like them.
Push back on your natural inclination to associate with people who are similar to you. Seek sponsors with real power even if they are beyond your comfort zone.
Minorities have to work harder to find a sponsor
If you are, like myself, not a white male, you will need to work a little harder. It is our tendency to select someone in the prime comfort zone: a “mini-me” protégé. This for most senior people in management consulting in developed countries will mean a consultant who is a white male and likely with some similarities to the leader’s background (e.g. same religion, same hobbies, same school).
In the face of these silent but potent forces, it is little wonder that fewer minorities have a sponsor and that the career of many promising minorities die on the vine.
Thus, minorities have a smaller chance to be tapped on the shoulder by the sponsor to get invited to join a leader’s powerful posse. Our consistent excellence has to be in the leaders’ face to get noticed.
How crucial is it to find a sponsor?
Sponsorship by someone senior with real power is certainly helpful. You get access to opportunities, your name gets tossed in a hat for important projects, and someone backs you up during performance evaluation discussions.
Yet, don’t stress about it too much. It is just one of the ingredients of success in management consulting. It is not the most important ingredient.
If you do great work and make sure it is visible to as many people as possible, you will get support. In management consulting people depend on each other. Everyone needs to look good in front of all people at higher levels.
Even principals and engagement managers often act like groupies when a partner is in the room. And they need you to never drop the ball. They need you to make them look good every time, for every piece of the project puzzle.
Same goes for partners. They need to impress senior partners. Senior partners need to impress other senior partners and clients.
So, in management consulting nothing trumps an excellent delivery record. Accordingly, while you should target building relationship with powerful sponsors, never prioritize nurturing relationship with sponsors over maintaining stellar performance.
The role of sponsorship in my career
Sponsorship played an important role in my career in management consulting and in banking.
One of the best examples of sponsorship in my career was when I was in banking. Just 6 months into the role, I was promoted to Director.
I am convinced that this accelerated promotion took place because the VP who hired me sponsored me to be promoted to the next level. He placed me on his team in a quite senior role, even though it usually took people few years to get to the next level. I know for a fact that many people said that I was too green for such an important role. But he won the battle and I was promoted.
What did he get out of this? My loyalty beyond the bounds of the organization and someone who worked nights, weekends, public holidays and vacations to get up to speed and prove him right.
Another good example of the power of sponsorship took place during my management consulting career. I was promoted out of the blue a second time within 5 months after my previous accelerated promotion because people pushed for it.
I never asked for this promotion. One of my sponsors recommended it and with help from my other sponsors got it approved! Even I thought it was premature. But I accepted it, of course, and worked hard to prove my sponsors were right.
I may have felt a little less ready than I wish I did, but I had to remind myself that I was being measured on the quality of my work. That is what counted. And, I got the job done and I got it done well.
Should you point-blank ask someone to be your sponsor?
I think it is a terrible idea to ask someone to be your sponsor. You have to earn it. It has to be offered to you.
It is like asking someone for romantic love. They love you or they don’t. You can’t ask them to love you. But you can try to earn it.
The same goes for sponsorship. You cannot force it. It must be earned and, once it is earned, you need to continually maintain the trust and support of your sponsor.
You have to look for influential and trustworthy people who are fair and who care about junior consultants and the firm. Do the best work you can for them and most of them will sponsor you when it matters.
If you are a person who canceled weekend plans to help a principal, who on Friday evening was asked by a partner to put together a proposal by Sunday evening to go out to client on Monday evening, this is the type of thing most people will remember.
Do a couple of things like that and you will be in the league of your own and you will not need to ask people to be your sponsor. They will sponsor you and it will be the most natural thing in the world to do for them.
In fact, they will not feel that they are risking their political capital by recommending you. They will likely feel they are raising their political capital by recommending you because they know that you always deliver.
Be a sponsor
The last piece of advise on this subject is not to forget to play on the both sides of the equation – nurturing relationship with sponsors as well as with protégés. Make a deliberate investment in 2-3 junior people who are particularly reliable and consistent high performers and start building your own posse.
At any given time you should cultivate sponsors for yourself and build your own posse of junior folks. This is a powerful formula for creating a long-term positive momentum in your consulting career.
The management consulting career path is patterned but not predictable. It involves a blizzard of change fueled by diversity of projects, working with different people and various clients at diverse locations. This makes it difficult to balance priorities to tick all the boxes on the performance scorecard.
And ultimately, there are no shortcuts to build a successful career in management consulting. But a powerful sponsor, or better yet 2-3 powerful sponsors, combined with a loyal posse, will provide that extra fuel to fast-track your advancement within the consulting firm, while shielding you, at least to some degree, from the burnout.
Kris is a partner and director in Firmsconsulting’s Toronto office and leads our Corporate Finance practice as well as the firm’s Leadership Development Initiative.
QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: Why do you think most people fail to find a sponsor or even look for one? Please let us know in the comments.
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Image from Trey Ratcliff under cc.