Why our networks are like us: the power of sponsorship

If you’ve heard the phrase “it’s who you know” throughout your career, you’re not alone. Although AI-powered application processes attract a plethora of qualified applicants, humans still have the final say when it comes to determining which applicants are offered positions. And the more people who can attest to a candidate’s abilities, the better. It is the power to accumulate a network. The problem is that our networks tend to mirror us, which is limiting for both parties.

Consider a job seeker looking to start a new career. Job seekers who have built networks of like-minded people may struggle to step into a different career vertical or industry. This reduces their outlook and prevents them from making daring sideways movements or, in some cases, unprecedented leaps that could help them spread their professional wings.

Leaders are also not immune to the problems associated with creating “mirror image” networks. A leader whose closest peers, colleagues, and even direct reports offer familiar feelings, experiences, and upbringing might end up hiring lookalikes. The result? A lack of diversity of thought and opportunity for the company.

From the outside, it is easy to see the stumbling blocks caused by a uniform network. Yet it can be difficult to go against the desire to pepper our networks with people who remind us of ourselves. Psychology Today cites a study that showed how cognitive it can be to surround yourself with others who are more similar than different. During the study, participants who thought they were matched with someone like them felt more comfortable interacting and enjoyed the process of meeting someone new.

The results of the study may reveal a tendency towards the familiar. But they don’t show how important it is to break this trend to foster more inclusive workplaces. Until people take active steps to build diverse networks, they’ll just get more of the same. And they will never be able to take advantage of the benefits that sponsorships provide.

Beyond Mentorship: The Advantage of Sponsorship

When it comes to professional networking, sponsorships and mentorships are often lumped into the same category. They are quite different, however. A mentorship involves a more experienced person transferring knowledge and ideas to a less experienced person. It is a closed relationship where information and communication flow between the two people involved. Mentorships are very helpful in improving a person’s personal confidence, abilities and skills. However, mentorships do not necessarily do anything to advance an individual faster towards a chosen career goal.

This is where sponsorships come in. Sponsorship occurs when someone in a position of authority or influence vouchs for another person. The godfather almost serves as a “personal recruiter” for a protege. The sponsor is essentially saying to others, “I know this person is a perfect fit for your job offer. I’d stake my reputation on it.

For the protege, having a sponsor is a huge advantage. Managers, executives and founders are often aware of job openings before they are made public. A sponsor can easily introduce a protege to a member of the hiring committee even before a position is posted. If the sponsor has enough clout, he may be able to encourage the creation of a position specifically for the protege.

For the sponsor, the responsibility of having a protégé is offset by the fact that he can have more impact than if the sponsor were only a mentor. Sponsors can mold and shape both individual careers and businesses. Their influence allows them to increase their influence and make a difference.

Of course, the way to get the most out of the mentoring relationship for all stakeholders is to form diverse networks. The more diverse the network, the more unique proteges a sponsor can bring to the table. In this way, the sponsor does not just present the same type of people. Instead, the sponsor showcases a variety of high achievers ready to shape the future of a company, industry, or career.

Tips for building diverse networks as a sponsor or protege

Whether you’re a well-known CEO or an enthusiastic entry-level professional, you need a diverse network of people to be able to build sponsorship relationships. Below are a few ways to grow your network with people who are anything but cookie-cutter.

1. Get involved in various networking programs.

You don’t have to randomly search LinkedIn for people to join your network. Many companies and associations offer you ways to meet other people and expand your “circle of people”. If you can’t find one, you can run it yourself.

For example, Nicole Simpson, director of DE&I at global marketing agency RAPP, has set up a referral program at her company called The Table Makers. As she explains, part of her goal was to put in place a diverse and inclusive succession plan.

“If you look at a company’s diversity numbers, you see a big drop from the professional level to the middle level and a steeper drop at the executive level,” she explains. RAPP’s program aims to accelerate high-potential employees into leadership positions with intention by pairing mentees with mentors who also agree to be sponsors.

2. Look for people to fill diversity gaps in your network.

Think about your spheres of influence. Does everyone have a college education? Do they have the same types of diplomas? Are a majority of the people in your network interested in the same field or career path? That’s great, but it doesn’t give you much perspective on what else is going on “out there”. It also doesn’t help you gain access to other positions or sponsor others so they can explore their opportunities.

The next time you attend a conference or other networking event, make the effort to meet people you wouldn’t normally talk to. Get out of your comfort zone. Even if you leave with just one new person to add to your network, you will be connected to that person’s vast network.

Over time, the branching technique will fill in all the gaps in your diverse networking tree. Plus, you’ll be able to boost and brag if you’re a sponsor, which according to Harvard Business Review are two important functions of sponsorships.

3. Turn your mentorship into a sponsorship deal.

As we have seen, mentorships and sponsorships have a lot in common. If you are already in a mentoring relationship, consider upgrading to sponsorship. As an academic paper focused on medical sponsorships showed, this can have a profound effect, especially for the mentee. In medical fields, promising female professionals may have a harder time getting promoted than their male counterparts. When they have sponsors, they have more ability to improve their rankings and move up the ranks.

Don’t be dismayed if your mentor doesn’t want to be a sponsor or if your mentee isn’t interested in being a protege. Another mentor or mentee ready for a mentoring experience will come. You just have to stay on the lookout.

The world is a wonderfully diverse and exciting place. It is up to you to ensure that your professional network reflects this diversity. This way you can take a step towards sponsorship on either side.

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