What Not to Do or Say to Your Sponsor
My career progressed fastest when I had a sponsor. But the key to success is what you do and say once you have a sponsor.
Sponsors are hugely important people when it comes to getting ahead in your career. They advocate for you and provide the support you need throughout your career.
Specifically, sponsors help put you in the strongest possible position to get promoted, paid and recognized. That’s why they deserve special treatment and consideration. And part of that is knowing how to make effective use of them, whether it’s asking for advice, keeping them updated, or leveraging their connections
But one aspect of the relationship with your sponsor is even more important.
Interactions with your sponsor matter
It takes time and effort to find a sponsor and then build a trusted relationship. But it only takes one misstep or negative interaction to lose their support.
After all, sponsors are putting their reputations on the line to back you as a candidate for bigger and better opportunities. They have many choices of who to support, so you have to keep being the kind of person that deserves it. And they’re successful and busy people, so you have to be worth their time.
So what kind of negative interactions are we talking about?
There are the usual suspects, like complaining about everything that’s wrong with the organization without providing possible solutions. Or saying negative things about others to make yourself look good.
But to keep building up that crucial reservoir of goodwill, trust and support from these key people in your career, there’s one kind of interaction that's crucial to avoid. And it’s one that most people won’t tell you.
What not to do or say to your sponsor
It stems from thinking of your Sponsor as someone trusted and familiar. They know you well, they’re on your side, and maybe they even treat you like a friend or family member.
But while they may consider you as part of their circle of “friends and family”, it’s a big mistake to think of your sponsor as part of yours.
So, whatever you do, don’t share your struggles with your sponsor. At least not until you can talk about them as something you’ve successfully overcome, which then makes them a “win”. And you want your sponsor to know all about your wins.
As my former colleague Carla Harris says, you want to talk with your sponsor about “the good, the good, and the good”. There’s no room for talking about all the negatives, hardships and problems you're having. Your sponsor is not a shoulder to cry on. You only want to share the positive things with them.
What to do when you are struggling
Of course, we all face obstacles and issues in our careers and in our work. At those times, you may indeed want your sponsor’s insights and advice. The key is to do that without seeming like you're struggling.
It’s all about the language you use – both your choice of words and your body language. I find it helps to take a deep breath, channel your inner calm and confidence, and plan out the way you’re going to phrase the issue before you have the conversation.
You might use words and phrases like “challenge” instead of “struggle”, “gain clarity” instead of “I have no idea what I’m doing”, “learning experience” instead of “huge mistake”.
- “The XYZ situation is proving challenging for these reasons… in your experience, what’s the best way to approach something like this?”
- “This is what I've tried… What strategies have you seen work in this situation?”
- “This is an area where I could benefit from your wisdom.”
- “The one area where I need greater clarity is XYZ”.
- “This was an important learning experience. What I’ve taken away from it is ABC, and here are the actions I’m taking to address it.”
During these conversations, make sure your body language isn’t giving you away. Leave any sense of panic at the door and use this as an opportunity to show you can keep your cool under pressure.
It’s easy to appear to struggle
Sometimes, those planned interactions with your sponsor can be easier because you can prepare.
The thing is, even in the normal course of the day, it’s easy to give the impression you’re struggling when that may not be the case. And if your boss is one of your main sponsors (which in an ideal world is the case), then you really need to pay attention to how you might be coming across.
For example, let’s look at two people from the same team, Olivia and Julia.
Olivia graduated from Harvard, spoke seven languages fluently, and was exceptionally bright and capable. On paper, she had everything going for her.
But every time her seniors approached Olivia with an assignment, her shoulders slumped, she would sigh and reluctantly ask what was needed. She gave the sense that she could hardly manage under the weight of all this work. Yet Olivia would then go ahead and execute the assignment brilliantly.
Julia was not nearly as smart and was just as busy as Olivia. But when approached with an assignment, Julia would say enthusiastically, “I would love to work on your project. I’ve got a deadline for the project I’m working on with Donald right now, but if you could get him to shift the priority, I’d be pleased to work on your project first.”
Guess who the team leaders preferred to work with? And indeed, Julia’s career was going better than Olivia’s.
Eventually, one of the seniors pulled Olivia aside and said, “Do you realize that every time I assign you something, you're leaving me with the impression that you're struggling? And that’s not good for your career.”
It turned out that Olivia had no idea how she was coming across and felt so comfortable at the office that she was no longer self-managing. Once she had the feedback, she could do something to change the behavior.
But most people won’t take the time to give that kind of frank feedback. So it’s up to you to remind yourself not to make the mistake of thinking you’re at home with friends and family when you're talking to your sponsor.
Yes, they're supporters but they’re not people you can just let all your hair down with. You want to still maintain your professionalism.
Keep it positive, constructive and upbeat
All the interactions with your sponsor are important for your career and continued progress. From a sponsor’s perspective, it’s far easier to back someone who’s likely to “make it”. You don’t want them to think otherwise.
So when you’re communicating with your sponsor, remember to keep it positive, constructive and upbeat. It doesn’t mean you won’t have problems, but it does mean you take a constructive approach to those problems.
The key is to give your sponsor special status. They’re in a special category of someone who’s on your side, but not on the inside. If you adopt this mindset, you’ll naturally avoid this key mistake.
How about you?
What do you need to watch out for when it comes to interacting with your sponsor?
Leave a comment and let me know.
Many thanks may for a great post. I really enjoyed reading it. It’s difficult for me to
answer your question with me not having any sponsors, but I have always been
thankful that I was blessed with having the right ATTITUDE and knowing how to
communicate with other people.
I was interested May if you have ever read A Message To Garcia by Elbert Hubbard? That’s a great story.
Parts of your post reminds me of this.
So glad you liked the blog post, Barry. Having a positive attitude is in many ways the best sponsorship we can have in life! And I’m guessing that you have been a sponsor to others.
Thanks for the suggested reading – I have not yet come across A Message to Garcia by Elbert Hubbard. Will check it out!
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences in these posts! I especially enjoyed this post. It really speaks to me since I made the mistake of treating my sponsor as a mentor. Instead of sharing the positives like you highlight above I shared my struggles. So when it came time for a promotion she chose someone other than me even though she encouraged me to apply for the position. She has since been promoted making my interactions with her less, but much more critical. I have taken my lessons learned and have tried to make any interaction I have with her very positive and focused on how I can help her. I would love to see a post on tips to recover from missteps with your sposor and strategies for strengthening relationships with sponsors.
Thanks for sharing your experiences, Kim. Learning from mistakes is key since we all make mistakes, and I’m pleased to hear that you’ve taken something positive out of the situation.
I appreciate your suggestion for a future article and will look forward to writing about how best to recover from missteps and rebuild those important sponsor relationships.
In the meantime, your strategy sounds very sensible – keep going.
Thanks again for sharing your insights!
Thanks for this post. This is really useful for me.
I have realised that my best sponsor is my line manager. I have made the mistake many times of sharing my struggles with him so I realise my mistake now!! I need to work hard on this relationship!
I really enjoyed your interview that you did with Carla Harris and got her book Expect to win. So I will read very carefully about how to manage sponsors.
I thoroughly enjoyed this post! Even though I am not working now, it is very useful to think about how I am conveying myself to others. Thank you very much for the great information and support!!!
You are welcome, Ann!
Its a great point – and where I work from home and am very isolated I have used discussions with my Sponsor i.e Manager to let him know I am unhappy and do not have enough work to keep me motivated – I have no colleagues I can share my unhappiness with. I was put into the current role due to an organisation change but I want to move roles into something that better suits my personality, skills and experience but do not then want to miss out or be put at risk. I have a call today and will endeavour to try and say what I want to say but with a positive approach. I don’t think it will be easy.
I have been working on a trust relationship with one of our Regional COOs as I believe he would be the best person to assist me in getting a promotion I have been working towards for a number of years. In the past year he has chosen me to part take in a number of projects, which I accepted with great enthusiasm and completed with success. However we have not had a formal conversation around these projects and my involvement in it. I’m planning to set-up a meeting with him. What would the best approach be for such a meeting? Any tips on what I should discuss or questions I should ask. I don’t want to come across politically naïve :).