How sponsorship can supercharge your career

If you feel like you're not growing or being promoted quickly enough, then your career might be lacking one often-overlooked ingredient: sponsorship.

Sponsorship is when a manager creates an opportunity for a direct report, specifically to help them progress in their career. When a manager sponsors you, they're putting their reputation on the line by betting that you are the right person for a challenging task. They're betting on your success. So they'll be in your corner, cheering you on and drumming up support from others, which can be an amazing feeling. Done right, these sponsorship moments can set you up for the next stage in your career.

What it looks like

Here are some different ways I've observed managers sponsor members of their team to fuel their career growth. In each case, the manager gives the individual a specific task which provides the individual with a positive outcome once successfully completed.

Representing the team in projects

Task: Sometimes my team needs to support cross-team projects. In situations like this, we need a team representative who can help the other folks on the project understand our team's goals and expertise, bring concerns back to the team, and escalate issues to me if necessary.

Outcome: Individuals use these opportunities to learn about our team's role in the bigger picture and to develop their skills at helping other teams leverage our team's expertise.

Speaking and writing roles

Task: At Elastic we regularly write blog posts, create marketing materials, and give presentations to the community. If any of these are relevant to my team's domain, I'll tap whichever individual has expressed interest or expertise in that area and ask them if they'd like to contribute.

Outcome: These kinds of roles are great for visibility and bolster the individual's reputation as a subject matter expert.

Creating shared documentation

Task: As Elastic has grown, so has the number of engineering teams. Each of these teams has the same or very similar dev processes and role definitions, but at the time we didn't have a central location for sharing this information across teams. My manager asked me to consolidate this stuff to provide an "Elastic engineering source of truth." He coached me on this process and connected me with stakeholders, guiding me to a successful outcome.

Outcome: This raised my visibility among engineering leaders at Elastic so they had an understanding of how I work when they weighed in on my later transition into people management.

Amplified knowledge-sharing

Task: An engineer on my team once wrote an excellent case study on how she worked with a designer to prototype ideas and validate them with internal user-testing. I was impressed by the attention to detail in their methodology and I thought other teams would find inspiration in her email, so I forwarded it on to the entire engineering organization.

Outcome: Folks responded positively, enabling me to cite her case study as part of my justification when I later promoted this engineer.

Increasing visibility to leadership

Task: In another situation, an engineer on my team identified a critical bug that put an important project's deadline in jeopardy. I coached him to email the senior leaders of the affected teams, and I advised him on how to help these leaders understand the decisions that needed to be made and the details surrounding them.

Outcome: By emailing these leaders directly, this engineer's visibility grew and with it, his reputation as a problem-solver.

Standing in for the manager

Task: Whenever I go on leave I ask a member of my team to lead the team in my absence. During my two paternity leaves, this period offered the selected individual the opportunity to lead for months at a time. She led team meetings, drove progress on important projects, and wrote company-wide update emails.

Outcome: This experience gave this engineer greater visibility within the organization. It also gave her an idea of what a technical leadership or even people management role would be like, should she choose to pursue one someday.

Making room for project leadership

Task: One of my team members was driving the planning and execution of an important cross-team project. He had great momentum and vision for the project. But with multiple teams, senior engineers, and product managers involved, I sensed a risk of having too many cooks in the kitchen. I explicitly asked the relevant stakeholders if we could formally recognize this engineer as the project lead and primary point of contact.

Outcome: Once everyone consented, he had the support he needed to move the project forward and demonstrate his leadership abilities.

Asking for sponsorship

If any of these sound familiar, then maybe you've been sponsored by your manager without even realizing it. If not, then maybe you'd like to ask your manager to sponsor you more often.

If you're on the fence, think about the resources to which your manager has unique access:

  • They have relationships with other leaders in your organization and can influence broad-reaching decisions.
  • They have streams of information that give them visibility into upcoming projects and organizational changes.
  • They're exposed to the goals and concerns of adjacent teams.

All of this access creates enormous sponsorship potential. If you're not tapping this access, your career could be suffering.

If you'd like your manager to sponsor you more, first think about the growth path you want. Which skills are you currently developing? What kinds of experiences are you interested in? Then set up a 1-on-1 with your manager to discuss your career aspirations, and ask them for help. You can share some of the examples I shared if you want to give them an idea of what you have in mind.

If you're not yet comfortable in your 1-on-1s with your manager, then that's another matter. I suggest reading my "Get more out of your manager with better 1-on-1s" post to develop your 1-on-1 fundamentals.

As needs emerge on your team and within the broader organization, gaps will form where the right individual can make a big difference. You want your manager to spot those gaps where you fit, and then match you with them so you can shine your brightest.

Further reading

I consider Lara Hogan's "What does sponsorship look like?" post to be the seminal article on the topic of sponsorship in engineering management.

Here are a couple more articles on sponsorship that I've found useful:

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