Sponsors, snakes & ladders

Sponsors, snakes & ladders

Having an effective Sponsor at work can be a game changer: providing you that stupendous jump up the corporate ladder to success. But remember, as happened often in the childhood game of snakes and ladders, the snake lurking in the background can halt or even reverse your climb.

So who is a Sponsor? And how important is s/he? A Sponsor is usually a powerful, senior person in your organisation who will advocate for you when it comes to highly visible projects, prestigious jobs or promotions. The more senior your Sponsor, the quicker you will advance.

Getting a Sponsor is about impressing the CEO of your company. Sometimes the Sponsor is the CEO. S/he enables you to be visible, impressive in elevator pitches, have a reputation for being a high performer, be known to volunteer for challenging projects and stretch KPIs, be likeable, adaptable…you get the picture. This is best-foot-forward time, not the time to confide your vulnerabilities and doubts; for the latter you may even need a friend / family member outside the organization, or, best of all, a professional mentor.

How can you tell that the senior person you have targeted is the right one? In a small company this is probably obvious – the CEO, Founder, or someone known to be in the “inner circle”. But in a large organisation, especially a matrixed, global one, there could be dozens of potential Sponsors. This is where you need to watch out for the snake. You may spend months and even years cultivating the wrong people entirely…and find yourself zooming down the snake to the bottom of the gameboard.

An acquaintance of mine had focused on a senior Managing Director of his firm, who was about three levels higher. My friend soon established himself as a rising star, someone who always delivered no matter the circumstances. He even reached the stage where he handled a few unpleasant tasks on behalf of his Sponsor – like taking the brunt of a client’s ire. But when time came for the coveted promotion, his Sponsor brought in someone else. My friend felt used and betrayed and eventually quit.

There are the obvious traps of office politics and getting caught in the crossfire, of over-ambitious people in senior positions who are not interested in advocating on your behalf. And there are many unforeseen events in a VUCA world that may disrupt and drastically change the power equation in the organization. How can you try to avoid the snake slides?

One way is to cultivate more than one potential Sponsor. Would-be Sponsors in large organizations are ideally two levels above you – observe them carefully, do your due diligence on not just the power they seem to wield but their values and what they stand for. Be strategic. Stay away from sycophancy and politics, no matter how tempting. Genuine Sponsors are impressed with your work and thought process, not with flattery.

Have a plan for your future in the organisation, and, perhaps, for the organisation itself, and target Sponsors who could help you get the jobs you would like to be promoted into. Be focused.

If you aspire to climb higher and faster in this competitive world, convert as many opportunities as possible to ladders with well-chosen Sponsors.

And beware the snake. There’s always one.