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”.

For example:

  • “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.