How many times did I get told “you need to be more visible if you want to get on” and “you need to grow your network”?

“Tell me something I don’t know”, said every introvert ever.

I know how hard this is. It’s really hard when your natural tendency is to work long and hard behind the scenes. You get your head down. You go above and beyond producing a high quantity and quality of work in an effort to prove your worth. That’s not your fault by the way, it’s a strategy that you naturally adopt, and one that you think will get you noticed.

But what tends to happen is it results in high levels of stress, exhaustion and burnout. This exhaustion stretches you so thinly and it can take you away from your personal lives and loved ones. The quality time that you’re so aware you need to spend with your family slowly declines and is replaced with a heavy layer of guilt. You spend more time working longer hours because you feel you need to, but then you become resentful, which leads to irritability and it impacts relationships and family life. You become distracted and frustrated under the pressure, and tensions run high with those close to you.

Being introverts we are naturally comfortable being alone. With that comes a tendency to think that we have to go it alone. But going it alone is the path of greatest resistance.

So how do we master this? How do we compete with those who just seem like natural networkers? One way to respond to the dreaded ‘visibility’ challenge is through sponsorship.

A sponsor will advocate for you. They will pound the table for you and back you when you take risks. They are generally a couple of levels above you, and hold positions of power and influence that can lead you directly to job opportunities. They can also expose you to a network that’s worth its weight in gold.

However, there are expectations on both sides of the table and if you want someone to stick their neck out for you here are my top tips to help you:

  1. Get involved in projects outside of your immediate role. Raise your hand and put yourself forward, particularly if it’s a high profile project. Yes it’s a bit daunting but it will get you noticed, and just getting your head down and doing a good day job won’t cut it.
  2. When choosing a sponsor do your research. The person you choose should be in a position to actually elevate you. Their expertise and sphere of influence is really important so at the right moment, they can make things happen for you. Think about their reach and what doors they can open for you.
  3. Don’t limit yourself by having only one sponsor. Having connections in different parts of the organisation will expand your exposure and help you grow your network beyond anything you could do alone. Also, it doesn’t hurt to have more than one perspective.
  4. Own your career. Take responsibility for your own progress. Your sponsor will be on your side and will open the doors for you, but you have to step forward and seize the opportunity. This is the quid pro quo, if they’ve stuck their neck out, you need to stick yours out.
  5. Make sure your track record speaks for itself. Your achievements should demonstrate tangible impacts. Don’t leave it until the last minute to build your portfolio because the richness and the detail will get lost over time. Document these as you go along so you leave any potential sponsors in no doubt that they should bat for you.
  6. Be clear on exactly what you want to gain from sponsorship. A sponsor can only help you if your crystal clear about your direction. Enlist some help if you’re unsure of what direction you’re taking your career in and when you’ve decided, that’s the time to look for sponsors.
  7. Become a sponsor too. You don’t have to be at the top to start and those people might open your eyes to many things going on in the organisation or things that you wouldn’t ordinarily touch.

I remember early on in my career there was one particular leader who inspired me beyond anyone else. I would watch in awe as he commanded a room. He was humble and hugely respected. I remember thinking how I wanted to be like him and would love to learn from him. So I plucked up the courage to email him and tell him that I admired him, I explained why and I asked him to be my sponsor. My finger hovered over the send button and I’m pretty sure I hid under my desk after the deed was finally done.

A few days later he replied with a resounding yes. That led me to sitting in on very high level meetings getting exposure to some very powerful people. It led me to being nominated for talent pools, executive coaching and a completely funded university degree. And it didn’t do any harm when I name dropped him in work circles.