So you have a mentor – but who is your sponsor? Many candidates enrolling in our leadership development programs don’t yet understand the difference – nor why sponsors are so critical to advancement. Although when asked how they acquired their last two promotions, most say it’s because someone advocated for them.  

Sponsors are precisely these more senior champions who believe in your potential and vouch for you when you’re not in the room. Mentors, on the other hand, are confidantes; they listen, offer advice and support you. It’s often suggested sponsors provide opportunities and mentors provide perspective. Put another way, mentors help you skill up and sponsors help you move up.

Sponsors don’t just make noise. They’re your instrumental change agents. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the founding CEO of the US-based Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), tells Forbes that, “…sponsors, and not mentors, give you real career traction. They put you on the path to power and influence by affecting three things: pay raises, high profile assignments and promotions.”

According to Hewlett, CTI’s focus group research suggests sponsors embolden people to ask for what they deserve, making the sponsor effect across several areas of advancement simply too good to ignore. She adds, “Sponsors deliver. They make you visible to leaders within the company – and to top people outside as well. They connect you to career opportunities and provide air cover when you encounter trouble. When it comes to opening doors, they don’t stop with one promotion. They’ll see you to the threshold of power.”

That kind of long-term patronage is a tantalising prospect in any competitive environment, one reason why it’s prudent to remember that sponsors are allies, not friends. As Hewlett says, “Efficacy trumps affinity.” You’re not looking for someone warm and nurturing. You want someone with clout, so aim high. People in powerful positions make the most effective sponsors so be selective about your sponsors and thoughtful when seeking opportunities to connect with the ‘right’ people.

The big question everyone struggles with is how to attract sponsors. The first task is accepting that it takes hard work, energy and initiative. One idea is getting involved in – or even starting – a stretch or high profile project within your organisation, giving you visibility across and access to senior leaders. The work must align with your capabilities to best display your talents. Such projects allow for more natural interactions, presenting you as a high achiever. Avoid scrambling to get in front of senior people, which almost always looks and feels contrived and foolish.

It’s challenging recruiting someone high-ranking but it’s important. You want someone with a voice to speak publicly on your behalf; not all senior people can or want to do this. Sponsors need to be well respected within your organisation or industry, so that it’s compelling when they put your hat in the ring. You want assertive, active representation from your sponsor when the time is right.

Another obvious but often overlooked idea is to know what’s happening in your space. Observe those who are going places and who are recognised as more senior and/or influential, and always keep abreast of the latest trends and clicks. Use this research to identify possible sponsors then impress them with your superior market intelligence. This level of responsiveness inevitably requires that you move beyond your inner circle of safe, familiar people, even if it already includes a senior advocate.

In other words, cast the net wider. An exceptional sponsor is worth their weight in gold. It takes time and effort to find them but they’re an investment in your future success, so be patient, keep with it, and the rewards will come.