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IT Career Sponsors: 5 Ways To Find Yours

Want to fast-track your career? Get a sponsor. Here's how to find the right one.
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You probably already know how beneficial a mentor can be: They listen to your career questions and concerns, lend advice and help put you on a path to success. Although a solid relationship with a mentor can sometimes lead to promotions and pay raises, seeking a more aggressive professional relationship with a sponsor can really move your career forward.

A study by the Center for Talent Innovation, which surveyed 12,000 men and women over two years, found that professionals who have sponsors tend to get the "stretch" assignments and ask for raises that translate into career mobility. Having that edge in competitive industries can be essential to advancing in your career.

Although sponsors and mentors share many of the same qualities, sponsors have a higher level of investment in you and your professional growth, according to Laura McGarrity, VP of marketing at IT recruitment firm Mondo. "Mentorship is a more personal relationship and is sometimes confidential," she said. "A sponsor is a mentor with a higher level of expectation. Sponsors will help you make connections in the industry and really advocate for you. Sponsorship is mentoring taken to the next level."

[ Don't forget to pay it forward: 5 Ways To Be A Stronger IT Mentor. ]

Finding the right sponsor and cultivating a good relationship with him or her can be tricky. Here's some advice on where to look for a sponsor and how to make the most of that relationship.

1. Understand The Sponsor Relationship.

Mentors tend to act as a sounding board -- a good resource for you in asking questions and gaining advice and perspective in your industry and company. But obtaining a sponsor is an important step if you're looking to leap to the next level of your career. "Sponsors are like mentors on speed," McGarrity said. "If you want to excel in business, really rise to an executive level and be at the top of the technology playing field, you need a sponsor."

Your relationship with a sponsor will be more intense than with a mentor, according to McGarrity. Sponsors need to believe in you professionally because they use their personal networks to help you make connections and find opportunities. You can also expect to receive a greater level of critical feedback from them.

2. Know What You Want.

You need to consider a number of factors before you approach someone to be your sponsor, McGarrity said. Start by developing a profile of the characteristics and qualities you're seeking.

Your sponsor should be a few steps ahead of where you are professionally, McGarrity recommends. The qualities you seek might include a preferred management style, the company the person works for, particular milestones he has achieved in his career, his role or title in his company, or external organizations he belongs to.

"You want your sponsor to be someone you can envision yourself becoming one day," McGarrity said. "You need to have a lot of respect for them and you need to feel proud about your relationship. You want your sponsor to be highly respected in their field and be someone who can teach you how they got there."

3. Look In The Right Places.

A sponsor relationship can develop organically or evolve from a mentor relationship, McGarrity said, but if you're aggressively looking to make progress in your career, you need to be proactive.

Networking groups are a good place to start. Search for local meet-ups on career boards, Twitter or LinkedIn. Networking groups will attract a diverse group of people looking to make connections. And don't be afraid to strike up a conversation and swap business cards with someone who interests you, McGarrity said.

Other avenues to consider include leadership programs or conferences. Take advantage of networking sessions at these events and note any conversations you have that feel natural.

4. Ask For Sponsorship.

According to The Glass Hammer, an online community for women executives in finance, law and technology, it is critical to be tactful, sincere, diplomatic and humble when asking someone to be your sponsor.

When you speak with your potential sponsor, inform her of your goals. Let her know that you're looking for someone to help you navigate your career and help you get exposure to new areas and opportunities. And be prepared for rejection: Not everyone you approach will have the time or desire to be a sponsor.

5. Set Expectations.

Just as you would with a mentor, it's important to set expectations at the beginning of your sponsorship, McGarrity said.

Discuss what you want to gain from the relationship, the connections you want to make and where you want to be professionally in the future. Also, agree on how often you'll meet and which forms of communication you prefer: in-person, on the phone or face-to-face, McGarrity said. Creating a plan at the beginning of your relationship will set the tone for how you proceed.

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Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing
Pam Baker, Contributing Writer
James M. Connolly, Contributing Editor and Writer
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing
Greg Douglass, Global Lead for Technology Strategy & Advisory, Accenture
Carrie Pallardy, Contributing Reporter