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When it comes to career growth, who’s really got your back?

A new model for understanding support types in organizations.

Woman placing hand on the back of colleague showing support

Michael walked out of his manager’s office shaking his head in disbelief. How could he have been passed over for promotion? His boss, Sara, had said that his work was exemplary, and last week, during the all-hands meeting, the CEO praised Michael for his extra effort with a major client, using the words next level to describe his contributions. With that kind of support, why wasn’t he promoted?

We tend to think of support in organizations solely in terms of mentorship and sponsorship. However, that ignores what is often the largest and loudest component of an individual’s network: fans. Fans are people who hold a positive view of an employee but are not personally invested in that individual’s success. And that’s where Michael got misled. He had fans, including the CEO, and he had a mentor in his boss, but he had no sponsors.

A sponsor is someone personally invested in an employee’s advancement who also has social and political capital in the organization that they want to use on that employee’s behalf to influence important business decisions like promotions and raises. In this case, Michael may have thought his boss was his sponsor, but he did not recognize that she lacked the standing in the organization to champion him. Not every employee has a sponsor, but for long-term career success, sponsors are critical. That’s why it’s important to know how to identify and cultivate them at work.

As a psychologist specializing in organizational leadership, I’ve worked with and studied enterprises of all shapes, sizes, and structures over the last 20 years. And I’ve observed two key variables that influence people’s behavior when it comes to supporting their colleagues and subordinates. The first is personal investment: how much an organizational leader feels a responsibility for an employee’s growth, development, and success. The second is the willingness and ability of a leader to extend their personal social and political capital on behalf of an employee. In this sense, political capital is the goodwill the leader has built up within the organization based on seniority, favors done for others, prior successes, and other positive attributes.

In order not to be disappointed, like Michael was, people need to be able to tell the difference between their supporters and those who can really have an impact. In my experience, the working world separates out into four types: casual fans, superfans, mentors, and sponsors.

The common attribute of casual fans and superfans is that they have a positive view of an employee but do not feel personally responsible for their success. Members of this group can range from being neutral to quite positive in how they regard an individual. If someone asks them, they’ll likely have nice but noncommittal things to say. However, neither casual fans nor superfans will go out of their way or inconvenience themselves to support the employee.

A superfan is usually at a higher pay grade than the employee. In our example, the CEO at Michael’s company was a superfan. Although he was willing to praise him publicly—a use of his social and political capital in the organization—the CEO was not personally invested in Michael’s success to the point that he would advocate for his promotion. It’s not part of the job description. Large companies have processes to manage promotion. Employees often mistake fans and superfans for sponsors, who inhabit the sweet spot at the top right of the matrix, above.

Mentors have a level of investment in an employee’s development that fans don’t, but are often unable to extend social and political capital on the employee’s behalf. They care deeply about helping an individual succeed, but they lack (or perceive that they lack) the necessary clout in the organization to take on a sponsorship role. The key difference between sponsors and mentors is that, with a sponsor, the focus of the relationship is on advocating for an individual’s advancement in the organization, and, with a mentor, the emphasis is on developing the employee as a person and professional.

I once worked with a young professional named Alice. She believed that Bridget, the senior manager to whom she reported, was a strong sponsor, because she often took her to lunch, introduced her to high-level people in the organization, and coached her to navigate difficult interpersonal situations at work. However, when it came to ensuring that Alice was put on prestigious client projects, Bridget seemed to lack the power within the company to deliver.

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Sponsors are like superfans in that they are vocal about a person’s performance, but sponsors also can and will spend social and political capital advancing that person’s career. The role of a sponsor is to invest in developing the employee as their protégé. Sponsorship can take the form of intentionally including the individual on desirable teams, ensuring access to work on projects that align with their interests and allow them to gain the skills necessary for career advancement. Behind closed doors, sponsors are the people who advocate for their protégé’s promotion, raise, and bonus.

A common pitfall for many professionals is assuming that only senior executives can be effective sponsors. Although companies frequently have formal mentoring programs, sponsorship tends to be informal and organic, so candid conversations are important to confirm a potential sponsor’s level of personal investment and support. Employees should feel empowered to ask a leader with whom they have built a relationship to be their sponsor.

Employees in search of a sponsor should start by identifying leaders in the organization they admire and want to emulate, beginning with their managers and their managers’ managers. Ideally, these should be people the employee has seen actively engaging with others at multiple levels within the organization. Next, the employee should consider what interests and commonalities they share with potential sponsors. Sponsors and protégés should have points of resonance, whether those are similar life experiences, career goals, or personality traits. Once possible sponsors are identified, the employee should continually seek them out for guidance about how to progress and grow their career, ask to work with them, and find opportunities to support their initiatives and projects.

Assessing organizational supporters

Early in my career, I had a sponsor who championed my participation in a high-visibility speaking role at a conference attended by a client’s senior leaders. Before my presentation, he took the time to help me understand how to hone my message. I wanted to emphasize the technical aspects, because I was proud of the depth of my knowledge. He told me I would lose my audience and instead needed to focus on my key points. He was right. The talk was a success and helped win business. And my success was also a reflection on him.

How individuals are supported, or not, by managers and leaders in their organizations has a direct impact on job success and career development.

Human resources professionals have an important role to play in these relationships. They can and should help employees identify individuals in the organization who can enhance their career trajectories. This is true for everyone but especially for pioneer professionals.

Pioneer professionals are the first in their families to work in a corporate or professional services environment. They often do not have someone who can coach them, so they hear a lot about sponsors and mentors, but not fans, and easily confuse them—as Michael did. Many leaders also see themselves as champions of diversity and inclusion when adding diverse employees to their teams. They become mentors but don’t follow through on their roles as sponsors, which can also lead to disappointment. Trust is a major part of establishing a support relationship, and one of the ways people build trust with others is by being reliable and dependable. Making time to provide support when it is needed builds trust. The best mentors and sponsors are encouraging but also provide concrete, actionable feedback that contributes to an employee’s growth and development. It may not always be what the individual wants to hear, but, coming from a good mentor, it can often be what they need to hear.

There is no perfect mix of support types in an organization. Especially early in their careers, professionals should aim to build a coalition, over time, that includes individuals from each of the types and represents various levels within the organizational hierarchy and, consequently, different types of power. Whether casual or super, fans should always be welcomed. People should consider making the time every six months to reflect on and evaluate their matrix of support.

How individuals are supported, or not, by managers and leaders in their organizations has a direct impact on job success and career development. Leaders should make sure their company has a system for advancement and a diversity and inclusion policy that everyone, including mentors and sponsors, understands. For employees, knowing how to distinguish between casual fans, superfans, mentors, and sponsors is important. By recognizing the distinct types of supporters in their organizational ecosystem, taking steps to develop a broad coalition of support, and regularly revisiting their support matrix, professionals can position themselves for success now and into the future.

Author profile:

  • Liz Sweigart, PhD, is the chief product and strategy officer at Safe Kids AI and a former principal at PwC US. She holds a PhD in organizational leadership from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology and an MBA from the University of St. Thomas, Houston, Tex.
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