Why our networks look like us: the power of sponsorship

If you’ve heard the phrase “it’s who you know” throughout your career, you’re not alone. Despite AI-powered job application processes drawing in a flood of qualified applicants, humans still have the final say when it comes to deciding which candidates are offered positions. And the more people who can vouch for an applicant’s abilities, the better. That is the power of gathering a network. The problem is that our networks tend to reflect us, which is limiting for both sides.

Consider a job seeker looking to branch out into a new career. Job seekers who have built a network of like-minded people may have difficulty entering another professional vertical or industry. This limits their prospects and prevents them from making bold, lateral moves—or, in some cases, unprecedented leaps that could help them spread their professional wings.

Managers are also not immune to problems associated with creating “mirror image” networks. A manager whose immediate peers, colleagues, and even direct reports offer familiar feelings, experiences, and education may end up hiring look-alikes. The result? Lack of diversity of thought and opportunities for the company.

From the outside looking in, it’s easy to see the stumbling blocks caused by a unified network. Still, it can be tough to resist the urge to pepper our networks with people who remind us of ourselves. Psychology Today cites a study that showed how cognitively validating it can be to surround ourselves with others who are more similar than different. During the study, participants who believed they were being paired with someone like themselves felt more comfortable interacting and enjoyed the process of meeting someone new.

The study findings may reveal a tendency towards the familiar. But they do not show how important it is to break away from this tendency to promote more inclusive workplaces. Until people take active steps to build diverse networks, they will only get more of the same. And they will never be able to get the benefits that come from sponsorship.

Beyond mentorship: The sponsorship advantage

When it comes to career networking, sponsorship and mentorship are often lumped together in the same category. However, they are quite different. A mentorship means that a more experienced person transfers knowledge and insight to a less experienced person. The relationship is a closed relationship where information and communication travel between the two involved. Mentorships are quite valuable in improving someone’s personal confidence, abilities and skill sets. But mentorship does not necessarily do anything to move a person faster towards a chosen career goal.

This is where sponsorship comes into play. A sponsorship is when a person in a position of authority or influence vouches for another person. The sponsor acts almost like a “personal recruiter” for a protégé. The sponsor is essentially telling others, “I know this person is a good fit for your job opening. I’d bet my reputation on it.”

For the protégé, having a sponsor is a huge advantage. Managers, executives and founders often know about vacancies before they are announced. A sponsor can easily introduce a protégé to a hiring committee member even before a position is posted. If the sponsor has enough clout, the sponsor may be able to encourage the creation of a position specifically for the protégé.

For the sponsor, the responsibility of having a protégé is offset by being able to have a greater impact than if the sponsor were just a mentor. Sponsors can mold and shape both individual careers and businesses. Their influence enables them to increase their influence and make a difference.

Of course, the way to get the most out of the sponsorship relationship for all stakeholders is by forming diverse networks. The more diverse the network, the more unique protégés a sponsor can bring to the table. That way, the sponsor doesn’t just present the same type of people. Instead, the sponsor introduces a number of high-performing artists who are ready to shape the future of a business, industry or career.

Tips for building diverse networks as a sponsor or protégé

Whether you’re a well-known CEO or a keen entry-level professional, you need a diverse network of individuals to enter into sponsorship relationships. Below are some ways to deepen your network with people who are anything but cookie-cutter.

1. Get involved in various networking programs.

You don’t need to randomly search LinkedIn to get people into your network. Many companies and associations offer ways for you to meet others and expand your “circle of people”. If you can’t find one, you may want to start it yourself.

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

“If you look at any company’s diversity numbers, you see a steep drop from the professional level to mid-level management and a steeper decline to the executive level,” she explains. RAPP’s program is intended to fast-track high-potential employees into leadership positions with intent by matching mentees with mentors who also agree to be sponsors.

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

Think about your spheres of influence. Are all college graduates? Do they have the same types of degrees? Are a majority of the people in your network interested in the same field or career path? This is great, but it doesn’t give you much perspective on what else is “out there”. It also doesn’t help you to move into other positions or sponsor others so they can explore their opportunities.

The next time you’re at a conference or other networking event, make an effort to meet people you wouldn’t normally talk to. Push yourself outside your comfort zone. Even if you only bring one new person to add to your network, you’ll be connected to that person’s extensive network.

Over time, the branching technique will fill in any gaps in your diverse network tree. In addition, you will be able to boost and brag if you are a sponsor, which the Harvard Business Review says are two important functions of sponsorship.

3. Turn the mentorship into a sponsorship arrangement.

As discussed, mentorship and sponsorship have many features in common. If you are already in a mentoring relationship, consider moving it to the sponsorship level. As an academic paper focused on sponsorship in medicine showed, this can have a profound effect, especially for the mentee. In medical fields, aspiring female professionals may find it more difficult to get promoted than their male counterparts. When they have sponsors, they have a greater ability to improve their positions and rise in the ranks.

Don’t be dismayed if your mentor doesn’t want to be a sponsor or your mentee isn’t interested in being a protege. Another mentor or mentee ready for a sponsorship experience comes along. You just have to keep an eye out.

The world is a wonderfully diverse, exciting place. It is up to you to ensure that your professional network is a reflection of that diversity. That way you can take a step towards sponsorship from both sides.

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