Centered Leadership: Leading with Purpose, Clarity, and Impact

Joanna Barsh & Johanne Lavoie

336 pages, Crown Business, 2014

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In which you’ll take steps to strengthen your sponsor relationships and cultivate new ones to accelerate your development and impact

We were taught to find mentors to support our development and then we learned we really needed sponsors. Both are good; but what’s the difference? Many people use the term mentor to mean sponsor; many sponsors are mentors. There actually is a difference, though, and it’s important. Confused yet? We’ll shine a light on it.

Great mentors are generally well along in their careers. You find them everywhere in the organization—at the top but also throughout the hierarchy. They truly understand the place and have a perspective worth knowing. For me, the best mentor of all time is Yoda from Star Wars; he is elderly, diminutive, green, and has huge ears—but boy is he smart. Yoda challenges Luke to develop. His remarkable wisdom strikes a deep chord in all of us. It’s easy to find someone who can recite Yoda’s advice (with his accent): “No! Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.”

Who wouldn’t benefit from this advice in a new situation? Mentors may understand your situation, but even if they don’t, you value them. That’s because insights from their work and their life experience bring you value. In contrast, sponsors are all about you. They are “all in” when it comes to your career and life. They’re willing to take a risk on you because they’ve seen you perform and believe you have what it takes; you’ve already helped them. Maybe the best way to truly explain the difference between mentorship and sponsorship is to share a story. It’s a bit of a detour, but hang in to find your sponsor’s essential role.

Portrait of a sponsor

A few years ago, we were in Israel. Jetta was about to turn fourteen, which happens to be the minimum age to skydive in Israel. Naturally, she wanted to go, and David was keen. “Joanna,” David says, “join us!” I stare in disbelief, swallow my expletives, and reply, “No thanks. I’ll be on the ground praying as I watch my baby fall out of the sky.”

Skydiving, I learn, involves much fanfare. First Jetta chooses a brightly colored astronaut jumpsuit. People (including me) photograph her getting attired. Then she lines up with the others and, in single file, they march to the plane. I notice that this plane is different. It has a large black hole in its side, which is the doorway. She enters, sits on the floor, doors close, and the plane takes off.

Put yourself in her place. Here is what happens when the plane reaches planned altitude. Your turn comes. You stand up and walk to the doorway. Then your arms involuntarily grab hold of the sides in terror. You think, Am I crazy? Who wants to jump out of a plane at twelve thousand feet? You are paralyzed. Holding on for dear life. Naturally, when this happens to you, someone needs to help. Know what he does?

Push you out of the plane?


And that person is…a sponsor!

You bet!

He offers an exciting opportunity for you to leave your comfort zone behind and he pushes you through the doorway to that opportunity (disregarding your fears). He is on the ground ready to pick you up and dust you off, sharing in your learning adventure. He tells everyone about your achievement, with evidence to show.

By the way, I watch Jetta descend. She is thrilled by the jump and wants to go again. As it turns out, her “sponsor” was clipped to her and made sure she left the plane as planned!

A lot of people adore skydiving, but what limits many of us at work can feel as frightening as jumping out of an airplane. A great sponsor goes beyond creating opportunity—he or she helps us seize it.

Tough love: It’s up to you

So how do you find a sponsor? Walking up to somebody you admire and asking, “Will you be my sponsor?” is not the way. Sponsors choose you—but you cultivate the relationship. They choose you because you performed, helped them succeed. If you were to proclaim, “Great work doesn’t always get noticed—so isn’t this a crap shoot?” you would be spot on. Let’s assume great work and figure out how to get noticed. I’ve asked sponsors what gets their attention; here are six ideas:

  • Excitement creator: Use the occasion of a success—not to boast, but to share results. I used this technique with a senior partner. Each time he missed a meeting (a regular occurrence), I left him a detailed voice mail relating the high points. He was appreciative and shared those voice mails to press for my election, successfully.
  • Counsel seeker: Ask someone if you can buy them a cup of coffee in return for advice on an issue. The person makes the time because he is pleased to be asked. Over time, this relationship may build as you find ways to work together. John Donahoe of eBay uses this technique time and again.
  • Great questioner: Ask the senior person about a specific issue you’re working on, via e-mail, an impromptu meeting, a quick phone call—whatever she prefers. Sheryl Sandberg uses this idea to form a great connection, efficiently.
  • Unsolicited helper: Make a practice of sending helpful articles or ideas. I was preparing a proposal and one day, a new consultant left me a relevant book. When I read the book, I felt grateful and assigned him to my team. Thanks, Michael Silber!
  • Upward coach: This approach requires more skill but has more upside. Point out what works well first, suspend judgment, and be kind. Leaders rarely get honest feedback and know even less about what’s happening on the front line.

Cultivating effective discussions

Potential sponsors exist, and we can gain tremendous value from discussions with them. However, not all sponsors are the same. From her research on archetypes, Carole Kammen helped us understand their differing natures, and worked with us to develop this list:

  • The Visionary: Dreams boldly and helps you see into the future; sparks creativity and innovation—but not interested in the details.
  • The Sage: Offers wisdom, teaching, and experience; links the work with deeper purpose and helps you get the distance to see it—but cool and distant, too.
  • The Devil’s Advocate: Challenges and shifts your perspective; pushes your boundaries of thought; provides you with a reality check—but always challenging.
  • The Relentless Coach: Pushes you to develop new skills; provides tough love, won’t give up on you—but exhausts you without accepting your limit.
  • The Hero: Takes on significant personal risk to open doors, clear obstacles, and fight for you; saves you in a tough situation—but demands personal closeness.
  • The Godfather: Goes to the mat for you, uses his considerable power on your behalf, and is loyal—but demands extreme loyalty forever.
  • The Caregiver: Nurtures, provides reassurance, and protects you in “the system”; has a sympathetic ear—but won’t push you when you need it.
  • The Connector/Navigator: Links you with people, ideas, and opportunities; helps you navigate—but expects you to close the loop on your own.

You’ll see that each archetype is distinctive, with strengths but also limitations. Every individual has a primary archetype, but may not be aware of it. Though we can shape-shift, we revert to our primary behaviors under stress or pressure. For years I thought I was a caregiver when in reality I was a relentless coach, feared by many! With awareness, I began explicitly to change shape to provide other kinds of support. By asking for what you need or want, you can influence how your sponsor shows up.

Which archetype best describes the potential sponsor who can help you carry out your vision? Think deeply about him or her, using Johanne’s exercise below.

Getting to know my potential sponsor

My sponsor’s primary archetype:

Top 3 strengths: What are the best things about that archetype? What kinds of problems or situations are handled best by that archetype?

Top 3 limitations: What constrains this archetype in helping to grow others? Are there personalities or situations it is not well equipped to sponsor?

Building a relationship: What is the best way to forge a relationship with that archetype? What would you do (not do) and say (not say) to establish trust?

We encourage you to do this exercise with colleagues and friends, so that you can exchange views and brainstorm how to build trust with the sponsor you’re cultivating. If you’re on your own, ask for ideas from people who know your potential sponsor.

We suggest investing in preparation for your upcoming sponsor meeting. It will help you stay grounded in the discussion (avoiding potential hijacks) and strengthen your presence; your sponsor will receive you with greater respect. These discussions tend to be infrequently held and brief, so preparing also ensures you use the time well.

Sponsor meeting preparation

1. I am feeling… For example, “I am feeling excited, but also nervous, because I have been waiting a long time for this meeting.”

2. I want to have this discussion because… For example, “I want to have this discussion because X has ability to direct resources to help me but he does not really understand what we’re working on and so I need to bring him up to date.”

3. What I most want for—and from—myself in this discussion is… For example, “What I most want for myself is to open the door to X’s support. What I most want from myself is to withhold judgment and see him with compassion to understand his view on my initiative.”

Johanne encourages you to use a Check-In to foster trust. Prepare two or three questions to open up the discussion. You go first and then ask your sponsor to respond to the same questions. Here is an option:

  • Today I am feeling…
  • My goal for this discussion is to…
  • What I most need from you today is…

The Check-In will help you learn if your sponsor is distracted or hurried, what she wants from this discussion, and what she needs or expects from you. Follow up on the conversation with a thank-you e-mail summarizing next steps. Whenever you can, offer support to reduce the burdens of follow-ups.

And don’t forget to let your sponsor know how you’re doing. The best gift you can give your sponsor is your success.

Reprinted from the book Centered Leadership: Leading with Purpose, Clarity, and Impact by Joanna Barsh and Johanne Lavoie. Copyright 2014 by Joanna Barsh. Published by Crown Business, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.