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Hedge your career bets with more than one backer

Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career by Sylvia Ann Hewlett.

Harvard Business Review Press

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career by Sylvia Ann Hewlett. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.

Let's say you have a sponsor, someone who's taken an interest in you, gone out on a limb for you, lobbied for your promotion, and provided you with cover so that you can take risks and burnish both your brands. If tomorrow this person left the company, could you survive with his or her replacement?

The 2 + 1 Rule

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No matter what industry you work in, no matter what job you hold, you know this: in a global economy still struggling to pull out of the 2008 financial nose dive, job insecurity is the new normal. You need a sponsor more than ever, not only to help you move up, but to help you hold on to your job. Only a powerful backer can help you keep the job you have or help you find one, should your position disappear.

In this economy, your sponsor is vulnerable to churn, too. We heard from a number of top-level managers who, in the wake of the 2008 collapse, found themselves out of job because they'd lost the high-level backer who might have protected them. …

It's not that your sponsor's departure spells the end of your relationship. Someone for whom you've worked hard, delivered results, driven revenues, or otherwise supported in measurable ways is likely to continue advocating for you. But her advocacy where you work won't be useful any longer. Unless you intend to follow her, that's a problem.

The solution, of course, is to cultivate more than one sponsor, at least in a medium-sized to large firm. In organizations with fewer than ten people, you're probably best served by having one or two sponsors outside the firm as well as in it, in the same industry. The ideal life raft in larger organizations, CTI [Center for Talent Innovation] research shows, consists of three sponsors: two within your organization–one in your line of sight and one in a different department or division–and one outside your firm. The "2 + 1 Rule," as we call it, holds true for every career stage, from entry level to executive. One interviewee compared her sponsor strategy to her bond portfolio. "You want it diversified and you want to keep adding to it, or it won't be an adequate hedge," she counsels.

A diversified portfolio means that your sponsors should be independent of one another, so that if one goes down, the other won't go down with him or her. Yvette at Bank of America is a case in point. Yvette attained a high-visibility position in the bank's global wealth management division after the acquisition of Merrill Lynch in 2009. Because her sponsor reported directly to Sallie Krawcheck, the division's president, both Yvette and her sponsor saw their careers skyrocket during Krawcheck's impressive reign. But by 2011, Krawcheck, despite raising net income from private banking by 54 per cent in the second quarter, was in the crosshairs of new CEO Brian Moynihan, whose leadership had resulted in losses of $8.8-billion for BofA during that same quarter. By September, Krawcheck was out. Yvette's sponsor was reassigned, and Yvette found herself sponsorless, too tainted by her connection with Krawcheck for anyone in the purged inner circle to extend her a lifeline. Today she works for another bank, a move that she describes as "essentially lateral" because she had to disassociate herself from her network, all of whom were in some way tied to Krawcheck. "We all lost ground because we'd hitched ourselves to Sallie," she told me in our interview.

Building your portfolio of sponsors means increasing the number of arenas in which you play a leadership role. Your job isn't a big enough stage to put you on the radar of powerful individuals outside your team, department, or division. If you work for a large company, as our focus group participants do, volunteer for formal mentoring programs as a mentor, because a leading role in any leadership development program invariably makes you visible to a wide range of high-level managers across divisions. Consider taking a leading role in an employee network or affinity group. …

For that external sponsor, you need to cultivate vibrant networks outside work. Join a philanthropic cause, get on a nonprofit board, take a leadership role in your church or synagogue, or head up your alumni chapter, all with a view to gaining visibility in a larger community by demonstrating passion and showcasing your unique skills or experience. …

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The 2 + 1 Rule ensures you'll survive a direct hit to your department, a systemic threat to your division, even a catastrophic blow to your firm or industry. But most importantly, it ensures you'll survive the loss of a sponsor. Finding and sustaining a sponsor relationship with three individuals is a daunting task, to be sure. But in these uncertain times, diversification is the name of the game.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett is president of the Center for Talent Innovation in New York. She is the author of 12 books, including Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career.

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