Part 1 of Get Yourself a Sponsor — How Mentors and Sponsors are Different (and Why It Matters)

Coaching and mentoring

This is the first in a series of articles about how a sponsor can help you get what you want from your career or practice.

Richard is a lawyer I know from law school who went into the litigation department of a mid-sized firm after graduation.  He did good work for several different partners, including Keith, who specialized in construction litigation.  Although construction litigation wasn’t even on Richard’s radar screen before joining the firm, he enjoyed it and expressed to Keith his interest in doing more of it.

Richard was hard-working, a skilled practitioner, praised by clients, and loyal to Keith.  Within a few years of starting to work together, Keith made Richard a proposition:  Richard would work exclusively for Keith and his clients, learn the construction litigation business inside and out, and help Keith build a powerhouse practice.  In return, Keith would teach Richard everything he could about his specialty, advocate for Richard’s elevation to partner, and protect Richard’s position by not bringing in any other attorneys to the practice group who would be senior to Richard.

Both lawyers have been true to their word.  With Richard by his side, Keith was able to develop a strong and profitable construction practice group independent of the litigation department.  Richard, an equity partner of the firm for many years, continues to be fiercely loyal to Keith and his clients, even as he develops his own book of business.

How Did Those Successful Lawyers Get There? Think about the lawyers you know who seem to be ahead of you on the career success ladder or further along the law firm food chain.  You know the ones – the attorney who made partner long before anyone else, the lawyer who inherited lucrative clients from a retiring partner, the one who is on the boards of numerous companies who are trusted household names, or the big rainmaker in your small town who knows everyone and seems to get the lion’s share of client business because he was tapped to sit on the city council.  What’s distinguishes those lawyers from all the other smart, hard-working, loyal practitioners you know (Including you)?

The biggest difference may be that many of those lawyers, like Richard, had sponsors.  Not mentors, mind you, though they might have had those as well.  Sponsors.  So what’s the difference?

What Mentors Do.  Hopefully, you’ve been fortunate to have mentors in your career – other lawyers who, because they like you, have shown you the ropes, offered advice and suggestions based on their experience, and provided a sympathetic ear when things haven’t gone your way.  A mentor can smooth your learning curve, help you solve problems, provide a sounding board, act as a role model, help you understand the unwritten rules of your organization, point out pitfalls, and help reduce your stress by making you feel supported.  It’s your job to show mentors respect and gratitude and to try to take their advice when it makes sense.

And What They Don’t. But according to research done by the think tank the Center for Talent Innovation, it’s sponsors, not mentors or role models, who can give you real “career traction.”  Their research demonstrates that men with sponsors are 23% more likely to feel that they are progressing through their careers at a satisfactory pace and that women with sponsors are 19% more likely to feel that way.

What Sponsors Do.  Although a sponsor is like a mentor in the sense that she also takes an interest in you and your career, she does so largely because she receives something in return.  The sponsor invests in you not just out of a desire to give back or pay it forward, but because she thinks an investment in your career will benefit hers.   Sponsors put you on the path to career success not by just passively offering advice, but by proactively promoting your candidacy to others, finding you growth opportunities, and developing you for higher-level roles.  According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the founding President of the Center for Talent Innovation and the author of (Forget a Mentor) Find a Sponsor – The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career, “their chief role is to develop you as a leader.  Your role is to earn their investment in you. Indeed, throughout the relationship, you’re delivering outstanding results, building their brand or legacy, and generally making them look good.”  The quid-pro-quo nature of the sponsoring relationship isn’t about favoritism or politics, though – when you get the better salary, assignments, or office, you will have earned it.

Part 2 of the Get Yourself a Sponsor series will offer more detail about what a sponsor can do for you and, perhaps more important, what your sponsor will expect you to deliver in return.

To your success,

Elise Holtzman, JD, ACC
The Lawyer’s Success Coach

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