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Sponsors play a critical role in our careers but they are often confused with the role of a mentor (aka coach or counselor) and manager (aka supervisor or boss). But how are these roles different?

Your manager provides oversight on the work you do. You have a reporting relationship to him or her and he or she oversees your projects and activities to ensure you do a quality job and meet expectations. Your manager has an area of expertise or technical competency in the domain in which you are working and can recognize “the good” from “the bad” of your performance and work products.

Mentors provide perspective, advice and counsel in response to issues you bring to them. They provide an independent perspective on problems and help you determine the best way forward. The best mentors ask good questions that enable you to self-discover the right answers. They make you think and challenge your perspectives, biases and opinions to help you see a situation as objectively as possible. Mentors impart their knowledge and experiences through story and help you learn and grow. They are invaluable advice-givers and sounding boards during those defining moments in your life.

Of course, the best managers are also mentors, but that is not always the case. It takes skill and a focused dedication to helping others to be an effective mentor. Likewise, your mentor may not be your manager. In fact, it is common to have a variety of mentors outside the reporting relationship with your manager.

So, what is a sponsor?

This often-confused and underappreciated role is vital to the success of your professional career. Below is a list of, what I believe to be, the five defining characteristics of an effective sponsor. But before we get to the list, we should note that the one overriding characteristic of a sponsor is: he or she will take a “proactive” role in demonstrating the following five behaviors. Sponsors do not need to be prompted, reminded, or encouraged; it is a part of their DNA and incorporated into their daily routine. So, as you read the traits below, start each one with:

“An effective sponsor proactively…”

After all, if you must beg for this person to do these things, is he or she really a sponsor?

1. Understands your capabilities and promotes your brand.

Sponsors go out of their way to get to know you and really understand what you do better than anyone else. They help to shape your brand and promote it to others. They tell stories of your accomplishments and share stories with others around them to market your unique brand. They also stand up for you in settings where you may not be present. A sponsor acts as your personal public relations (PR) agency to protect the integrity and equity of your brand. It is no secret that the more others know your capabilities, the more you will get called upon for bigger and better opportunities. Your sponsor should be your biggest advocate and loudest voice.

2. Helps you navigate and mitigate your weaknesses.

Part of knowing your strengths is also knowing your weaknesses; not for the purposes of exploiting them, but rather for the purposes of positioning you for the greatest chances of success that play to your strengths. It is important your sponsor knows your weaknesses so he or she can address those with others when they arise [because they inevitably will]. For example, someone may highlight your lack of technical skills in an area. If your sponsor knows this, he or she can skillfully redirect the objection to highlight other skills you have that compensate for a perceived weakness. He or she can only do this if he or she has an honest view of your strengths and weaknesses.

3. Connects you with opportunities to succeed.

Career-making opportunities come along every day. From strategic projects to highly visible tasks handed out by the executive office, your sponsor should enthusiastically position you for the opportunities that fall in your “strike zone.” This is why it is so critical your sponsor knows what you are good at and what you enjoy doing; because knowing when to pass on an opportunity and when to position you for the right one will make the difference between your professional success or failure. Your sponsor’s radar should always be on so he or she can connect you with those right opportunities.

4. Helps you move up and advance your career.

A sponsor must have both the ability, the credibility, and desire to positively impact your career. Make no mistake, an effective sponsor wants you to succeed without jealousy, ulterior motive, or hidden agenda. Your sponsor finds ways to help you move up, advance and promote you to that next level. This does not mean they will put you in unsafe circumstances or set you up to fail, but they will stretch your abilities and look for opportunities to demonstrate your full potential for the purposes of moving up (aka getting promoted). They have a proven track record of recognizing and promoting talented individuals. The motivation for this stems from an internal drive which provides the sponsor personal fulfillment from the sheer pleasure of helping you advance your career.

5. Celebrates your successes and recognizes your accomplishments.

When the party is thrown, your sponsor should give the speech telling everyone how great you are. He or she should revel in your success, not because it means success for him or her, but because it means success for you. These accomplishments need not be big promotions or highly visible projects; even little wins are important for recognition and celebration by your sponsor. A call, an email, a card or just a simple pat on the back saying “I’m proud of you” goes a long way. The nice part about these celebrations is they provide great stories for continuing to promote your brand. After all, nothing drives future success like capitalizing on the momentum of current accomplishments.

Please share below any additional traits or stories you have seen from the best sponsors in your career!