Mellody Hobson's proactivity got the attention of a sponsor.
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images
January 24, 2022 8:16 AM EST

If you ask any successful person how they advanced in their careers, you’re likely to hear at least one of a few common themes: strong performance, passion to excel, and a tireless work ethic. But if you push them just one step further, asking what differentiated them from people who had similar attributes but didn’t progress as far, you’ll probably hear one thing: a sponsor, someone who believed in them and helped them climb the ranks.

To be fair, they might not use the exact term. Despite its importance, sponsorship isn’t as common or as well-known a concept as mentorship, and it remains elusive and difficult for many people to achieve. As the head of Women on the Move, the global center of excellence for women at JPMorgan Chase, I’ve spoken to hundreds of successful women across different industries, and I’ve found that many agree that women are both “over-mentored” and “under-sponsored.”

It’s critical to note the distinction between the two. Sponsors are strong, consistent advocates for others. They have positions of power and influence, and can directly provide job opportunities or lobby on others’ behalf. They pound the table for people behind closed doors and protect them when they take risks. Mentors, while valuable, play a different role. They provide coaching and guidance, but aren’t necessarily in positions of influence. They could be bosses, but could also be peers or other contacts that provide day-to-day advice.

Unlike mentorships, which often come from structured company or industry programs, sponsors aren’t guaranteed based on desire – or even merit. Simply asking someone to be your sponsor is not going to work. It’s hard to engineer these relationships through something like formal matching, which is why many companies are reluctant to try. For these reasons, sponsorship relationships are rare and hard to develop.

So the critical question is: How do you find a sponsor?

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At first glance, sponsorships appear to happen by chance among people who work closely with each other. Sponsors see the capabilities and outputs of “sponsorees” up close, and relationships form organically.

But I believe it’s much more than just being lucky. What’s become clear from my interviews and conversations is that women generally take one of three approaches—all of which are accessible and repeatable.

Be the expert

This could include being a content or thought leader, the best sales person or analyst, or a uniquely positioned entrepreneur or innovator. Whatever the sector, women in this category are sought out for their unique knowledge or capability; people they work with universally agree on their level of mastery, and view them as leaders in their domain. Sponsors want to work with them because they’re considered the best at what they do.

One of the best-known examples of this approach is former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. Rice’s expertise in Soviet affairs gained the attention of former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, who brought her to the White House and championed her as a valuable resource (as did both Bush presidents).

Rice has shared with the Women on the Move community that president George H.W. Bush introduced her to Mikhail Gorbachev as his Soviet specialist who advised him on everything he needed to know about the Soviet Union. He didn’t say that for Gorbachev’s benefit, she explained; rather, he was signaling his support for her to everyone else around them. His message, as Rice recalled it, was, “That’s my specialist, don’t you dare try to tune her out.”

Be indispensable

The second approach—one that works especially well for women early in their career—is to take the initiative to help out a more senior leader. This could involve executing against a big project or filling in other work gaps. Sometimes sponsors identify those gaps themselves; other times they push others to identify them. Under this approach, sponsorees typically go above and beyond their official roles and take on extra assignments. They provide great leverage for sponsors, and often inspire deep loyalty in return.

This is a very accessible approach that doesn’t require deep expertise—just a willingness to be proactive and take on more. When a sponsoree steps in to fill a void – especially without prompting – it shows attentiveness, drive, and ownership. And it doesn’t necessarily require catching the attention of the most senior executives; the key to this approach is to impress an immediate supervisor, who will keep advancing their sponsoree as they move up themselves.

Mellody Hobson, co-CEO of Ariel Investments and a JPMorgan Chase board member, is a great example: When she started at Ariel as an intern, she told Women on the Move, she was extremely proactive, tackling any job required for founder John Rogers, including sorting the mail. Her work ethic got Rogers’ attention, and the two developed a strong bond as Rogers realized that Hobson’s contributions made them a powerful and effective team. He championed her early in her career and eventually made her his co-CEO.

“John, from the very beginning, just poured his heart and soul into helping me be a better leader and a better teammate,” Hobson told Women on the Move.

There are countless versions of this approach. I interviewed one general counsel who said that when she started her career in a law firm, she ended every meeting with a senior colleague by asking, “What more can I do to help?” She asked this question five times and heard back, “Nothing.” But the sixth time, the question prompted him to ask for help on a research project, which gave her a new opportunity to demonstrate her value; from that point forward, she was his go-to partner. Her advice is simple: “Find people and make their lives better.”

Connect over shared interests

Pursuing common passions at work can capture the attention of executives you wouldn’t meet otherwise—and no, that doesn’t have to mean taking up golf. Sometimes the activities that lead to sponsorships are work-related, such as recruiting, diversity initiatives, or serving on a committee. Other times, relationships are built over mutual interests, such as hobbies or social causes.

In this model, people may initially develop more of a personal relationship. But during their interactions, sponsors can observe things like a sponsorees’ leadership qualities and ability to influence others and get results. They may also develop a familiarity or comfort with each other and realize that they enjoy working together. In short, the sponsor gets to know the sponsoree’s intrinsic qualities and is convinced that these strengths will make them successful in other roles.

In my research, I spoke to one banking executive who bonded with her sponsor over art and theater. As they developed a relationship, she saw that he liked to be challenged, so she made sure she was always prepared to share her perspective. As he took on bigger jobs, he expanded her role because he trusted her opinions, ultimately adding her to his executive management team. The move gave her confidence and opened even more doors, even after he left the company.

Of course, work right now looks dramatically different than it did when many of the women I spoke to first connected with their sponsors. And while I do believe these approaches to sponsorship will remain effective, they all will likely require more discipline in a remote or hybrid world. Developing a relationship with a sponsor is always easier with—and often depends upon—meaningful one-on-one contact, which means women looking to cultivate that relationship must be very deliberate in making the most out of that time, coordinating in-person work schedules and driving thoughtful agendas in their conversations. No matter what form the next phase of work takes, sponsorship will remain a critical factor in career advancement, and women should feel confident that they have options in building these vital relationships.

 

Saperstein is the head of Women on the Move at JPMorgan Chase, where she manages the company’s global diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts for women. Her areas of focus include helping women business owners grow their companies, strengthening the financial health of women and girls, and supporting women’s career advancement.

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