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It's not what you know, it's who you know.

While that may be a familiar refrain to most job seekers, people hoping to climb the ladder these days are looking for someone who not only knows them, but can actively give them a boost.

Following the publication in 2013 of Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, a growing number of individuals and organizations are supplanting the traditional mentorship model with more formal sponsorships, where junior employees not only seek advice but ask for help to move up the ranks.

Ritu Bhasin, a principal of Bhasin Consulting Inc. and a regular speaker about the benefits of sponsorship, explained the difference this way: "Mentorship is a light touch on someone's career, whereas sponsorship is a heavy hand in terms of pushing someone in career advancement."

For Sonya Kunkel, chief diversity officer at Bank of Montreal, a sponsor is "someone who takes a risk on you, who is willing to spend some political capital to make a difference in your professional life, and who behind closed doors will really advocate for you."

Since sponsors are putting their own reputations on the line when they agree to help someone, they need to be very familiar with their protégé's work.

"The sponsor relationship really starts with the quality of your work, and it's really based on the sponsor's thinking that your work is remarkable," says Anne Ristic, an assistant managing partner of law firm Stikeman Elliott's Toronto office and someone who has both and been a sponsor. "You have to have a deep history with the sponsor and a strong working relationship with them."

Before such a relationship can be formalized, protégés need to find ways for their prospective sponsors to see them in action. "You really need to seek out a work assignment with the person or find an opportunity to shine," Ms. Ristic says.

Laura Sherbin, executive vice-president and director of research at the New York-based Center for Talent Innovation, which was founded by Ms. Hewlett, agrees. "You need to show that target sponsor that you're worthy of their sponsorship."

If you don't work with the individual directly (and Ms. Hewlett suggests cultivating a relationship with at least one external sponsor, as well as a couple of sponsors inside your company), there are other creative ways to get to know a sponsor.

Volunteering with external organizations, networking groups, and professional associations can provide effective means to get in front of your potential sponsor.

Once you've made the connection, it's important to remember that it's the protégé who needs to move things ahead. Beyond simply keeping in touch, the protégé should suggest ways for the sponsor to help.

"I think that often people are just too general," Ms. Ristic says. "They think as long as they're connected up with that person, then their career will go forward. In my experience, the people who are good sponsors, who are influential and in a position of power, are very busy. They would love to help you, but they aren't sitting around thinking 'I wonder what I could do to help Anne get ahead.'"

Ms. Ristic suggests thinking about what you want and asking for specifics, such as work assignments that will stretch you, or specific introductions. She recalls how such an effort paid off.

"There was conference that I wanted to go to, and I felt like none of the organizers would know me from Adam, so I asked one of my colleagues who has acted as a sponsor for me. He phoned up the people he knew and not only suggested me for this, but I think really endorsed my work," Ms. Ristic says.

Protégés should also avoid being shy about sharing good news. "Make sure that your sponsor knows of your accomplishments on a regular basis. This isn't tooting your own horn. This is ammunition that your sponsor will use to help you get advanced," Ms. Sherbin says.

Women in particular can be reluctant to ask for help, which is unfortunate because sponsorship advocates see it as a strategy to increase workforce diversity.

"Women often view it as being political. It's not being political – it's developing relationships," says Jennifer Reynolds, chief executive officer of Toronto-based advocacy group Women in Capital Markets.

Ms. Bhasin suggests reframing the idea of sponsorship to focus on how positive the relationship can be for both sides. "Sponsor relationships are win-win," Ms. Bhasin says. "They are a win for the protégé because the protégé gets powerful support and access to opportunities and guidance. But it's also a win for the sponsor because you have a go-to person who is indispensable and continuously shows up for you."

While still a relatively new concept, some organizations are already experimenting with formalizing sponsorships. Bank of Montreal piloted such a program in January, 2014, pairing 17 senior executives with emerging leaders. Monthly meetings, forums and events helped bring the groups together. Ms. Kunkel, who organized the pilot, attributes the program's success to having a structured approach.

"For these formal programs to work, you have to create the circumstances for people to meet regularly so that their relationships gel. Especially considering that we're asking the sponsors to get to a place where they would be comfortable advocating for the protégé," she says.

Not only were there no "divorces," she says, but 14 of the 17 protégés were given new significant opportunities as a result, including promotions, expanded assignments, and big development moves.

Beyond that, the BMO sponsorship also had another unexpected benefit: increased networking among the sponsors themselves. "That's actually been a happy observation," Ms. Kunkel says. "It wasn't something we were anticipating, but we've seen a lot of that."

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