Ten years ago, when I began to construct the dream castle that would ultimately become the Center for Talent Innovation, a private-sector consortium of some 75 global companies committed to changing the face of leadership around the world, I knew I needed big-time backing.

I didn’t seek out friends or mentors. Instead, I targeted people who had both the intellectual clout and financial capability to leverage my new venture--and me--into the big leagues. In other words, I went after sponsors.

Sponsorship is a powerful concept in the corporate world, where you need the political power and influence of people several levels above you to help you get the plum assignments, open doors, make connections, and provide the protection and leverage as you climb to the top. They’re equally crucial for entrepreneurs.

Mentors listen and guide, sponsors make things happen.

Google "women," "entrepreneurs" and "sponsorship" and you’ll come up with more than 4.5 million hits.  How do you make sense of it all?

Let’s start with the strategy behind the support. Don’t confuse or conflate mentors with sponsors. Mentors, while valuable, limit themselves to offering advice and a sympathetic ear. Sponsors have "juice" and are willing to use it to jumpstart your dream. Mentoring prepares you to make a move; sponsorship makes it happen.

Be strategic when you look for sponsors.

When looking for sponsors, many smart women focus on role models rather than powerfully positioned sponsors. To avoid that mistake, be strategic as you search your galaxy of supporters. Efficacy trumps affinity; you’re looking not for a friend but an ally. Your targeted sponsor may exercise authority in a way you don’t care to copy but it’s their clout, not their style, which will turbocharge your business growth. 

In my case, I specifically identified heavy-hitters from the policy and scholarly world, as well as powerhouses from the private sector who could provide major funding. You might focus on people who can introduce you to an investor or a major potential client or recommend you as a speaker at an important conference or a source for the media to amp up your visibility.

One business owner I know compares her sponsor strategy to her investment portfolio. "You want it to be diversified and you want to keep adding to it, or it won't be an adequate hedge," she counsels. This means that your sponsors should be independent of each other, so that if one goes down, you don’t find the others --and yourself--dragged along.

Figure out what you have in exchange because it’s a two-way street.

The other--and far more serious--mistake in trying to build a sponsor relationship is assuming that sponsorship is all about them giving and you taking. Nothing could be further from the truth. The sponsor/protégé alliance is a two-way street that benefits both parties.

In my new book, Forget a Mentor. Find a Sponsor (Harvard Business Review Press), I explore the "duties" of a protégé. Obviously, the top deliverable is consistent and superior results, no matter the challenges or circumstances. Die-hard loyalty comes in a close second. Equally important is the ability to contribute a distinct personal brand that adds value to the sponsor’s own brand and promotes his or her legacy.

How does that translate from the corporate world to entrepreneurship? Think about what you bring to the table. What is your currency? What do you have in your pocket that might be useful to the powerful people from whom you’re asking favors?

As I looked for sponsors to help launch CTI, one of my first choices was Carolyn Buck Luce, then a senior partner at Ernst & Young. We were acquainted socially and liked each other enormously. More to the point, Carolyn was a prominent leader in the private sector who shared my passion for women’s progression in the workplace. What could I offer that would make it worth her while to add yet another task to her enormously demanding job? Already known as a champion of professional women within E&Y, Carolyn wanted to increase her visibility externally and become recognized as a leading advocate for women nationwide.

Reciprocity is key to a lasting relationship.

Looking back at those early years, I see that our trust-filled alliance exemplified the reciprocity between sponsor and protégé. During the critical start-up phase, Carolyn garnered significant financial support for my task force from E&Y and others. In addition, she leveraged her connections and clout, helping me recruit female executives from companies where she had an in and I did not.

In return, I made sure I came through for her. I was able to provide serious assistance, which ranged from helping her become a published author to ensuring she had a leadership role in my increasingly successful task force. These successes transformed her external brand. She became a significant voice on the national stage.

And so did the Center for Talent Innovation.

This is the ultimate secret of sponsorship success: It’s more than simply swapping favors. Rather, your sponsor extends your reach through her own; in return, you build and burnish her brand by leveraging yours.