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Sponsorship: A Relationship that Can Boost Your Pharma Career

Robin Kumoluyi
Sponsorship: A Relationship that Can Boost Your Pharma Career - ISPE Pharmaceutical Engineering

Extremely Competent. Hardworking. Strong Leadership Skills. Results Oriented. Proven Track Record. Are these qualities all that it takes to progress your career? Perhaps something more is needed? Having a sponsor can make all the difference – and propel your career forward.

It’s not always easy for women in our industry (especially those with a technical focus) to climb the proverbial ladder and get to the top of their game. Very few women are CEOs of the world’s largest corporations. On the 2018 Fortune list, only 24 women (4.8%) were CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Women account for less than a quarter (24%) of senior roles globally.

To close this gap, women need to not only have a network of colleagues, but also have exposure to senior leadership and the “big A”: Advocacy. Having a sponsor is a great way to further develop yourself and your career, broaden your exposure, and expand your network. Keep in mind that sponsors are very different from mentors. Mentors serve as advisors, helping you shape your interests and plans for your career – and they don’t necessarily need to work at your company. They can most certainly act as a sounding board and offer excellent advice, but they usually aren’t your ticket to the top. Sponsors, however, can help you secure that ticket. They work within your company/organization, and they take a more direct role in your success by advocating for you and the acceleration of your career.

Women who are committed to such a relationship get exposure to opportunities in their current place of employment and within the industry overall. Sponsorship brings your name into conversations that you would not expect and can open doors to new opportunities, in addition to bringing your capabilities and leadership to the table. As with many things in life, relationships within your career are critical. The old saying “it’s not what you know; it’s who you know” holds some truth. Although, I would say it differently: “It’s not who you know; it’s who knows you and who advocates for you.”

Sponsorship programs are both formal and informal within an organization, but one thing holds true no matter what the arrangement: sponsorship is earned.

Who is a Sponsor?

A sponsor is normally a Senior Leader in an organization who has influence, a strong network, and a seat at the table when decisions about promotions and talent development are made. A sponsor will coach and expose their protégé to Senior Management to display their talent and capabilities. Sponsors do this in many ways, such as identifying highly visible projects and assignments and securing them for their protégé, inviting them to events, and allowing them to pitch ideas. The Sponsor, in simple terms, uses their reputational capital to progress the career of their protégé.

Over the past two years, I have been involved in a formal Sponsorship program within my company sponsoring two amazing young women. It has been very rewarding for me to see these women grow and thrive by making the appropriate connections for them. This program has also widened my network because these two women have positions in parts of the business where I have not yet had exposure. My Sponsorship commitments forced me to meet with and understand the work done by several of my peers that I had not previously interacted with in order to make the connections and provide exposure for the two women.

Why Would Someone Become a Sponsor?

Sponsorship is not to be taken lightly, as the Sponsor is putting their reputation on the line in advocating for a protégé. But the Sponsor also benefits from having a protégé, because the Sponsor’s network and knowledge expand as well. In addition, a Sponsor can engage the protégé to get major projects and programs executed. And, the Sponsor has the privilege of shaping future leaders for the organization – and in doing so, supports their own legacy.

In formal programs, Senior Managers are paired with individuals who are seen by the organization as top talent in order to provide them with exposure to Senior Management and ultimately, to enable the advocacy they need to progress their careers. Knowing that these individuals are considered “top talent” makes it a little less risky to advocate for them. In informal relationships, on the other hand, the Sponsor and protégé select one another. They identify and see the potential in one another to have a mutually rewarding relationship.

How Do You Attract a Sponsor?

The first criterion for attracting a sponsor, whether through a formal or informal program, is to make sure you are “top talent” in your organization. Having a Sponsor is a privilege that is earned by being someone for whom a Senior Leader would be willing to put his/her reputation on the line. For this to happen, you must be perceived as someone who is very capable, gets results, and has strong leadership skills. If your company has a formal program, you can inquire about the criteria for matching you with a formal sponsor.

It is also very possible to get a sponsor on your own. Your existing mentor, if at the right level of influence, can become a sponsor – or you can identify someone who you would like to be your sponsor and work to build that relationship. You can and should ask for sponsorship, but keep in mind that this is a big request. You will have to grow the relationship and earn the person’s trust over time, so that the Sponsor you have identified will want to sponsor you. They should see you as someone who can progress and will go the extra mile to show up as a strong talent in the organization.

It is also important to build your relationship with more than one sponsor. Having multiple individuals with varying networks and influence can multiply your success and opportunities. However, it is critical that you stay committed to giving 110% and continue to perform at a high level. With multiple sponsors, you will be very visible, and sponsors can and will step away if they feel you are not engaged or committed to delivering results they can support. This is not to say that you must be perfect; Sponsors are usually accepting of some mistakes and will help you self-correct, but you must aim for the highest bar possible.

Characteristics of an Ideal Sponsor

  • Has a position of influence in the organization or industry
  • Has a strong network
  • Is willing and able to advocate for the protégé – and spreads the word about their potential and performance
  • Actively provides exposure to other Senior Leaders
  • Identifies and advocates for growth opportunities for the protégé
  • Provides cover and a safe place for growth
  • Gives honest critical feedback on skill and leadership gaps and supports correction
  • Makes critical connections and introductions
  • Expands the protégé’s perception and vison of possibilities

Characteristics of an Ideal Protégé

  • Is a top performer who consistently delivers results
  • Has a clear direction for their career
  • Openly and honestly shares strengths and weaknesses
  • Is receptive to feedback with the ability to act and do the work to progress
  • Drives the relationship and gives 110%
  • Identifies ways (and is willing) to support the Sponsor in achieving their goals and legacy
  • Works hard to build and maintain trust - keeps commitments
  • Keeps Sponsor in the loop
  • Shows respect and appreciation for the support given

Women in particular can benefit significantly from sponsorship. If we think about our industry and how few women are in Senior Leadership roles, we should all ask ourselves, “Who is advocating for me? Who knows me and what I can deliver?” Sponsorship can give your talents the visibility they deserve – and the opportunities for you to shine.

You may know many people, but who knows YOU (and the unique skills you bring to the table) matters more.


The author if this article, Robin Kumoluyi, is a part of the Women in Pharma® at ISPE. Learn more about the Women in Pharma at ISPE and how you can get involved in programs just like the one Robin is describing above.

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