Mentors vs. Sponsors

Kerry Ann Rockquemore describes how to woo a key backer for your academic career.

June 3, 2015

Dear Kerry Ann,

Thanks for your thoughts on using Twitter. While I feel clear about the guidelines for my social media use, you’ve got me concerned about whether or not I have sponsors in my department. I have a mentoring committee in my department, my dissertation adviser continues to be a mentor to me and I participate in three different mentoring programs outside of my department (one in my college and two in my broader discipline). I have lots of mentors! But you seem to suggest that a mentor and a sponsor are two different things. I assumed mentors are supposed to act as sponsors. If not, how do I get someone to become a sponsor?


Many Mentors, No Sponsors

Dear No Sponsors,

I heard a lot of questions about sponsors last week (so much so this letter is a composite of those concerns). You are correct that mentors and sponsors engage in different types of activity. Mentors are important because they provide you with information, resources, connections and the wisdom of their experiences. But sponsors are people who have power and influence and use it on your behalf to shape the story about who you are (and the importance of your work) behind closed doors when people are talking about you and you’re not there. Sometimes sponsorship occurs in informal settings, other times it occurs in high-stakes review meetings, but rest assured that perceptions of you and your work are being shaped by ongoing conversations.

Mentors may be very well intentioned, like you a lot, respect your work and be deeply invested in your success. But when it comes to speaking up on your behalf, pushing back against a loud critic or actively reframing the story about you and your work, mentors often sit in silence (believing their work has already been done). It’s not from any ill intention, it’s just that it requires proactive energy for people to step up and extend their political capital on your behalf. That means that while some mentors will act as sponsors, you cannot bank on people who have been assigned to you in a mentor-matching program or as a departmental service assignment to be your sponsors when it really matters.

I mention all of this because I want you to appreciate that sponsorship is work and it has a cost. Because of that, people need to truly understand what you’re doing at a level of depth where they can have informed opinions and conversation. If they need to defend you or reframe the story about you, they need to be able to speak to specific details quickly, and that’s only possible if people know what you are doing.

So how can you cultivate sponsors? Or how can you encourage genuinely supportive mentors to act as sponsors? One thing I know for sure: you cannot directly ask someone to be a sponsor for you. It would be painfully awkward, inappropriate and extraordinarily ineffective to ask someone directly, “Would you be willing to use your power and influence on my behalf when people are talking about me behind closed doors and I’m not there to shape perceptions about me in a positive direction?”

So if you can’t ask directly, what types of things can you do to increase the probability that someone will act as a sponsor on your behalf when it really matters? There’s no guaranteed formula, but here’s a process that has worked for many of my clients:

1. Don’t act like an arrogant jerk.

While there are a wide range of personalities that are tolerated in academic settings, please know that toleration is at the opposite end of the feelings continuum from the warmth that generally underlies sponsorship. People sponsor those they like and sit in silence when someone they don’t like is being taken down. Arrogance doesn’t wear well on most people. Arrogance elicits particularly negative reactions when it comes from women and faculty of color (I’m not saying that’s fair, I’m saying that’s reality). If you want sponsors, be sure you’re not behaving interpersonally in ways that preclude your building positive relationships.

2. Create opportunities for research-focused conversations.

Draft a plan for your research this summer that includes goals, what work needs to get done to achieve those goals and a timeline. In the process of creating this plan, you’ll inevitably have questions emerge. Once you have a plan and a set of questions, ask someone you hope will become a sponsor if they would be willing to meet with you for 30 minutes to discuss ________ (fill in the blank with a specific question that the person you’re asking is particularly well suited to discuss). For example, if you do interdisciplinary work, you may be unclear about the consequences of publishing in a journal in your home discipline, an outside discipline or in an interdisciplinary journal. You could ask a potential sponsor who also does interdisciplinary work if you can have a quick conversation about how he/she has developed decision criteria for where to publish. Whatever you do, don’t use the word “mentoring” or request a mentoring meeting.

3. Select potential sponsors carefully.

Please choose your potential sponsors wisely. You have the opportunity at every faculty meeting to observe who speaks (and who doesn’t), who has the ability to change the direction of a conversation (and whose comments glaze the room over), and whose opinion matters (and whose gets routinely dismissed, marginalized or completely ignored). You don’t want to cultivate sponsorship from someone whose endorsement creates negative interactions. You do want to cultivate sponsorship among people who are well respected, who speak carefully and infrequently, who don’t hesitate to interject when need be (and are highly effective when doing so).

4. Seek advice and take it.

When you have the meeting, focus it on your short-term research plan and your specific questions. Personally, I like to send an abbreviated version of my plan and any questions ahead of time (to demonstrate that I have prepared for the conversation). Use your best judgment based on the individual(s) involved. The purpose of the meeting is to informally discuss your research agenda and seek advice. Not general advice, mind you, but specific, concrete, actionable advice from the potential sponsor. Resist the urge to overshare, talk too much, argue with the advice or cry if you don’t like what you hear. Really listen and take in what is shared with you.

While it may sound obvious, at the end of the meeting thank the person for their time and advice (and do say out loud the word “advice”), because they really have given you two tremendous gifts: their time and their wisdom. Also, follow up with an email saying thank you and letting them know you would be happy to support them in any way you can. It’s amazing how often I spend time with people and they can’t be bothered to say thank you, much less offer to reciprocate. I (like many people) factor that into my decisions the next time they request my time.

5. Follow up.

Of course, just because someone gives you advice, that doesn’t mean you have to take it. But if you do, be sure to let the person know you did. Either verbally or via email, it’s as simple as saying, “Thanks again for your great advice about submitting my article to ________ journal. I submitted it shortly after our meeting and just received an R&R.” That continues to build the relationship, is a quick and positive update on your progress, and is credibility building for you, all in two sentences.

The point of this interaction is that something special happens when people give you advice. They often start to warm toward you and they become invested in your taking it. These are generally good things, because if you choose to take the advice and others question your decision later (and you’re not present to explain your decisions), the advice giver is that much more likely to defend your decision making and explain why. After all, they are defending their own advice given to you. It’s not guaranteed anyone will do so, but you’ve increased the likelihood of someone stepping up on your behalf when you request (and take) the advice of a potential sponsor.

6. Rinse and repeat.

Not much is likely to happen the first time you initiate this type of focused meeting. But that’s not the point. It’s intended to be a first step toward a long-term relationship. The power of this approach comes in doing it repeatedly. Some people request meetings at the beginning and end of every term, some do it periodically as needed, and you can experiment to see what works for you. The first time may be a little awkward, but circling back, continuing to seek advice, taking that which makes sense for you and discussing your ongoing projects (in specificity) has a way of providing a potential sponsor with the continually evolving understanding of your progress and investment in what you do, so that if they feel moved to intervene in a conversation they have everything they need to do so effectively.

I realize that sponsorship is a difficult topic to discuss because most of us want to believe that our work will speak for itself. In reality, the quality and importance of your scholarship will be interpreted by others, often in conversations that occur while you’re not around. As such, it’s critically important that you recognize the difference between mentors and sponsors, be thankful for the important work your mentors do for you, and start proactively cultivating sponsors in your department.

I’ve described just one way to go about enhancing the possibility of sponsorship with senior faculty, but I bet that readers will have many more ideas. Please feel free to share them in the comment box below and as always, keep posting questions to my Facebook page.

Peace and productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.

President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity


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