Most people know about the importance of having a mentor, but the goal should be to get a sponsor. The difference is that a sponsor is someone within your organization or network that is part of upper management and can assist you in advancing your career. They have some sway in their field and can vouch for your abilities, which may help you land strategic assignments or positions.
A mentor is good if you are just starting out in your career and need some guidance. They can suggest training and give advice on ways to build on your professional competencies to move up in your industry. Mentors usually play more of a supportive role than an advocate role. Sponsors usually keep an eye out for new opportunities for you to participate in such as volunteering, education, and projects. Also, they may even bring new job opportunities to your attention and refer you as well as introduce you to influential people.
The key is to pick someone who has the ability to help you advance your career or at least has a wide range of connections that have this power. This can be someone in your organization, a past instructor or someone in a senior-level position in your field. Once you find that potential sponsor, you will need to show them that you have the skills and experience needed for them to feel confident in recommending you. Some ways you can demonstrate your abilities may include asking to be put on important projects at work, attending industry events, and volunteering for activities that will have industry leaders involved.
In order to get this person to sponsor you there must be a conversation about it. Ask them if they would assist you with your professional growth in an informal setting, such as coffee or lunch. Be courteous if they decline; since sponsors tend to be higher level management they may be too busy, but you can always ask if they know anyone else who would be interested in assisting you.
When you eventually get a sponsor, you must then offer to assist them professionally depending on your skills set. Ask them how you can be of assistance if you are unsure of how to help. The goal is to maintain this relationship and make it mutually beneficial for both parties. Overall, it may be somewhat hard to find a true sponsor for your career, but it will be worth your time once you find that person who roots for your success.