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Why Women Need Career Sponsors More Than Mentors

Talented women need more than just the advice and encouragement of a professional mentor.

Why Women Need Career Sponsors More Than Mentors
[Photo: Hero Images/Getty Images]

There are plenty of mentoring programs out there these days for professional women, but they aren’t doing enough. Many are held up as examples of a company’s commitment to diversifying its leadership pipeline, but despite the resources and good intentions behind such programs, they rarely bring about real change. Few of the employees who participate tend to advance as far as they could, and the corporation’s glass ceiling stays intact. And it’s much the same in less formal mentoring contexts, too. So what more can be done?

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Mentors Are Necessary But Not Sufficient

To be sure, the problem with mentorship programs and relationships isn’t the intentions behind them. There’s always something well-meaning and generous about a more experienced individual advising an ambitious younger one. After all, many of us can attest to the value of having someone to talk frankly with, whether it’s to discuss business strategies or office politics. That person can be a former supervisor, a coworker, a professional ally, or even just a friend. To be a successful mentor, you simply need to be ready to listen actively and possess the type of experience the person you’re mentoring is interested in acquiring. In a way, a mentor is an informal career counselor.

But there’s a key ingredient for moving up the ladder that all those relationships lack: capital. In other words, a direct ability to give you opportunities, not just advice about how to maximize them when they come along.

While there’s value in connecting with experienced, inspiring people who can offer their perspective and advice, the reality is that these relationships are voluntary. And, more important still, mentors don’t usually directly supervise your work or have a say in when and how far you advance. That’s what makes them a safe resource, but it also limits what they can do for you.

Sponsors Have Capital

Unlike a mentor, a sponsor is someone who can not only advise you on your career, but actively help advance it. They have power in an organization and can use their social capital and credibility to advocate for you. According to a 2011 Harvard Business Review special report, sponsors not only advise their charges, they promote, protect, prepare, and push them.

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Take Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and a quintessentially successful woman. Would she have risen to the top without the advocacy of Larry Summers, who took her with him from Harvard to become his research assistant at the World Bank and later appointed her his chief of staff at the U.S. Treasury? Or without the support of Eric Schmidt, who recruited her and later gave her the critical assignments that would build her personal brand at Google?

Or consider Loretta Lynch. As accomplished and experienced an attorney as she is, would she have become the first African-American woman U.S. attorney general without the proactive backing and support of President Obama?

This in no way diminishes the skills or accomplishments of either of those leaders. It’s simply to acknowledge that we all need powerful people to help us advance–talented women especially. As the Harvard Business Review research revealed, both men and women undervalue or fail to nurture a network of professional sponsors. Yet women are 54% less likely than men to have a sponsor.

Unlike mentorship in many cases, sponsorship makes a difference. Seventy percent of men and 68% of women who have a sponsor reported being satisfied with their career advancement. Women with sponsors are 27% more likely than their unsponsored female peers to ask for a raise and 22% more likely to ask for the “stretch assignments” that build their reputations as leaders. The truth is that sponsors better position women to advance in the workplace.

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Here are three tips to help you gain a sponsor who can really influence your career.

1. Commit: You Can’t Win If You Don’t Play

Moving upward in an organization involves much more than just a strong work ethic and an ability to turn in deliverables. Performance is the bottom line, sure, but you’ve got to make yourself a known and respected entity. To the extent that’s it’s in your power, don’t sacrifice work-life balance, but develop an “engagement strategy” based around monthly networking goals. Be strategic and specific. Join committees or participate in social activities that are likely to involve your potential sponsors.

2. Diversify: Don’t Put Your Eggs In One Basket

The trick is to have multiple and diverse sponsors. It’s easy to choose a sponsor who shares aspects of your identity, personality, or skill sets. But when it comes to women’s advancement, men matter. The reality is that women occupy only 21% of senior business roles in the U.S. and 22% globally, making men some of the most powerful stakeholders in leading corporations. Recognizing that workforce demographics are evolving slowly but steadily, we should make an effort to bridge identity barriers.

It’s through relationships that organizational cultures, structures, and opportunities become knowable and accessible. Women need to cultivate those relationships not just with other women but with their male colleagues, too. While having experience sponsoring a woman or being a woman in a certain field is undoubtedly helpful, we shouldn’t underestimate the capital it takes to push tomorrow’s female leaders up the ladder.

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3. Ask: A Closed Mouth Doesn’t Get Heard

Once you’ve made yourself known, started piecing together a diverse network of sponsors, and worked toward performing at your best, it’s important that you self-advocate for pay raises, promotions, and especially challenging assignments. We often think great work will lead a sponsor to take notice and pick us out from the crowd, but asking makes a difference. Sponsors may want to help but don’t always know exactly where we want to go.

When Madeleine Albright was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, she responded to White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta’s survey of cabinet members’ future plans by saying, “I would love to continue serving at the UN, but I would also be interested in becoming secretary of state.” Albright got that wish when President Clinton made her the first woman secretary of state. That probably wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t spoken up.