Networking

Help! My Sponsor Left!

How to maneuver deftly when your biggest champion leaves.

When Margaret learned her boss, who gave her plum assignments and pushed for her to get raises and promotions, was leaving the firm, she was worried she wouldn’t be given as many opportunities going forward. What she didn’t realize was that top management viewed her as being inextricably tied to her boss, and now saw Margaret as a potential traitor and snitch. “They thought I was feeding her information,” she says.

Having a corporate champion in your firm who will advocate for you is paramount to propel your career forward. But unlike a mentor, who listens, consoles, and advises, a sponsor goes to bat for you—which makes the relationship with them incredibly powerful, but also complicated when things evolve. “The breadth of sponsorship is both an accelerator for your career but also protection and safety for your career,” says John Petzold, senior client partner and CXO Optimization lead at Korn Ferry.

Your best defense from being left in the lurch again is to devise the corporate equivalent of a belt and suspenders—align yourself with more than one influential sponsor.

Which makes his or her leaving all the more difficult. And while it isn’t uncommon for sponsors to ask their protégés to come along with them on their new adventure, that doesn’t always make sense for employees. Thus, they start to panic, wondering how they’ll maneuver the office politics of their companies without a champion—particularly at a time when corporate hierarchies are shrinking and workers have more than one manager to answer to. But before thinking all is lost, consider these points.

Survey the scene.

Before panicking, career pros say it’s important to consider why and how your sponsor left. If he or she left on amicable terms, your link to that person mostly likely won’t affect your position at the company. But if there was a tussle or a cloud of suspicion involving the departure, you’re going to have a harder time bouncing back. “You can get tainted,” says Damon Bates, a principal and senior consultant at Bates Communications. That said, even if circumstances are dire and you want to remain at the company, you can work hard to prove your allegiance to the organization instead of the individual.

Assess your other work relationships.

Your best defense from being left in the lurch again is to devise the corporate equivalent of a belt and suspenders, or align yourself with more than one influential sponsor. “Just as organizations put together a board of directors to provide a variety of perspectives, we professionals should take a similar approach,” Petzold says. Julia Taylor Kennedy, executive vice president at Center for Talent Innovation, calls it the “two plus one rule”—two sponsors inside your organization and one outside. Ideally, you’ve built up goodwill with others in the company who may have been allies with your former sponsor. Now’s the time to reach out to them to discuss a path forward—particularly in times of volatility, when hitching your wagon to just one person isn’t a good idea.

Don’t forget you have your own track record.

While most people don’t get to senior-level positions without sponsors, they also typically don’t get there if they haven’t had a series of individual wins. “You need to create a reputation that stands without the support of a sponsor,” says Taylor Kennedy. “In the end, our careers are our own.” To that end, analyze how you can ensure your work continues to prove why that sponsor chose you as his or her protégé in the first place.

Use the move to your advantage.

When a sponsor leaves can be the perfect time to reassess your career goals and your ties to your employer. Even if you plan on staying at your current company, it’s wise to continue to stay in touch with your sponsor, as you never know how you may be able to make the most of your champion’s next act. Need high-profile proof? Look no further than Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and her sponsor, Lawrence H. Summers, whom she met when she was an economics major at Harvard University. He chose her as his research assistant. After that, she followed him to the World Bank and the United States Treasury, positions that set her on a trajectory that eventually led her to become chief operating officer of Facebook.

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