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Career Advice: Sponsorship Must Be Earned

Sponsorship is an important part of any employee’s path to advancement in a company. It is also essential to advance women and people of color into senior leadership positions. Sponsorship is sometimes conflated with mentorship, but there are notable, important differences.

As Nancy Wolfe, SVP, HR Crop Science Commercial Operations for Bayer (a DiversityInc Noteworthy Company) says, “Mentoring is what you say when they’re in the room. Sponsorship is what you say when they’re not in the room… Having that relationship, knowing you’re putting your personal credibility on the line, is incredibly important in sponsorship relationships.”

A sponsor putting their credibility on the line is part of why sponsorship takes more effort from both sides than mentorship.

In this piece, Bill Huffaker, former global director of talent acquisition, human resources management, General Motors (No. 30 on the DiversityInc 2017 Top 50 Companies for Diversity list), shares why sponsorship must be earned — making it critically different from mentorship.

DI: Did you or do you have a sponsor or mentor? Do you sponsor or mentor any employees?

Bill Huffaker: I make a distinction between a mentor and a sponsor. A sponsor, technically, is someone who has some sort of decision-making authority and can help you along in your career. I try to have an air of gratitude and to appreciate and honor people who have helped me along the way. I certainly have sponsors and people who have seen my talents and believed in me — and I’ve earned their trust. They stuck their neck out to help me. I didn’t ask for a sponsor; I earned it. And there are definitely people in my career that I’ve been grateful to.

In my opinion, mentors are people who you can have those “get real” conversations with. They don’t necessarily have decision-making ability over your career, but I have taken a different approach in that I have constructed my own advisory board. I have an advisory board so that I can process and think through the kind of leader and person I want to be, and examine some of my history so that I can be a stronger leader.

Related Article: Will Your New Mentoring/Sponsorship Program Succeed? 

I have not had the traditional mentoring relationships, where every week you meet and so forth. But, I do mentor people. I have 14 direct reports, and I try to focus on them first. It’s a lot of people, but I feel a sense of responsibility to help them learn and grow, so I prioritize them. I also do a lot at General Motors for women’s development and LGBT development. I try to leverage my strengths and offer trainings and talks, and things to support people. But I’ve had to be pretty selective in mentees that I take on just because of time constraints.

DI: That’s really good. What really resonated with me the most is that sponsorship wasn’t given to you — you earned it. I think people in corporate America really need to understand that, that you have to earn that sponsorship because that’s an executive, a leader going to bat for you, putting their political capital on the line for you. And they have to believe in you, and so you’ve got to earn that.

Related Article: Difference Between Mentoring, Coaching & Sponsorship

Bill Huffaker: Yes, exactly.

DI: What career advice can you give on how to be successful in whatever you do?

Bill Huffaker: You should really put together and envision your ideal future and have the courage to step into it. It’s hard — careers don’t have to be trial and error or pain and heartache, but don’t be afraid to step back, really set your intentions about what’s important to you, and don’t be afraid to make a decision and jump in.

I think it’s a farce to say these days: ‘What do you want to be? Where do you want to be in five years or ten years?’ Who knows? In 2012, I never would have imagined I’d be here at General Motors in Detroit. At the core, I know who I am and I’ve been doing the work around that. I think you have to always be opportunistic. But do the work and really understand what’s important to you and the tradeoffs you’re willing to make. Otherwise, you can feel like a pinball in a pinball machine game, where you’re just bouncing from opportunity to opportunity, searching for something. Don’t be afraid to choose. And nothing is forever. And have the courage to go for it.

Related Article: Johnson & Johnson, Bayer Execs Discuss Effective Sponsorship for People of Color and Women

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