Hit a roadblock in your career trajectory? You’re not alone. Women in the workforce, no matter their standing at work – junior employee, business owner or CFO - plateau at some point during their working life. Why? It’s likely they didn’t engage a sponsor. Not just a buzzword, sponsorship is the tool you need to turbo-charge to the top.
Sponsors vs Mentors
‘Like mentors, sponsors can advise and steer you, but their chief role is to develop you as a leader,’ says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of ‘(Forget a Mentor) Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career’.
The best-selling author and Harvard Business School graduate advocates sponsors, not mentors, as the modern-day career linchpin.
A sponsor might be a senior shareholder of the company you work for, a director of your department or a talent scout specialising in your industry. Like mentors, they share their wisdom and act as a sounding board, but unlike mentors they’ve got the power to throw your name in the ring at board meetings or thrust your portfolio in front of decision-makers at key creative catch-ups. They’ll challenge you endlessly but also provide safe passage in murky waters.
Executive coach and Principal of Better Leaders, Inc., Sandra Stein says that the main reason a person chooses to sponsor someone is because it’s going to be beneficial to them. “You make them look good, you help them accomplish something,” she says, adding that the challenge lies in how to get a sponsor as opposed to a mentor.
“It’s more difficult than getting a mentor, more involved and there is more risk to the sponsor. There are less of those relationships around.”
If you’re talented, motivated and eager to spot the opportunity however, there are many would-be sponsors out there who want to help.
“Identify who they might be then go about showing off your talent and selling yourself. You have the greatest opportunity to do something extraordinary in an area where you are already outstanding instead of trying to bolster a new talent. You have to look inward. The hardest thing is to see your own talents because often talent becomes so natural it’s like breathing,” suggests Stein, whose own sponsor came in the form of a college professor.
“He was the chairman of the marketing department and one day he took me aside and said, ‘That paper that you wrote was extraordinary’. He’d noticed my talent when I hadn’t and he asked if I’d like to take his fellowship.” Of course she accepted as it not only paid for her tuition but was a stepping stone to a career in strategic marketing when he recommended her to a hiring firm upon graduation.
Hewlett, like Stein, contributes both her education and career successes to key sponsors. “When it comes to opening doors, they don’t stop with one promotion – they’ll see you to the threshold of power,” she says but further confirms Stein’s thoughts that the sponsor/protégé transaction must be beneficial for both parties. ”What sponsors are looking for, above all, is someone who will deliver standout performances and be loyal and reliable.”
While your sponsor will advocate your skill-set and set you up with red-hot assignments that’ll lead to title changes and pay rises, he or she will expect results in the way of new business or innovative solutions in return for the exposure. It’s a bilateral relationship – as opposed to the asymmetry of mentorship.
Step Up The Ladder
Don’t assume good old-fashioned ‘going to task’ will result in an automatic step up the ladder. Unfortunately, it’s often the workers with their heads down who remain unseen. Talent alone isn’t enough. You need to openly seek endorsement.
“It’s about recognising your talent and demonstrating it,” advises Stein. “It’s not just about hard work, that’s not a differentiator. It’s really got to be a combination of hard work, relationship building and talent.”
Summer Halabi, who flies between Dubai and Saudi Arabia as a top executive for a global firm with over 500,000 employees, says a sponsor played a pivotal role in bulleting her to the next level in her career and continues to champion her since she arrived in the Middle East from the US.
“Getting a sponsor is one of the smartest things I have done in my career,” says Halabi. “Working for such a large company, you can be the smartest person in the world, but just a dot on the map. I learned a long time ago to be very creative and stand up and promote my achievements to navigate the corporate world.”
It was during her tenure at the company’s Los Angeles branch that Halabi was hitting all her targets and asked her supervisor about securing a sponsor to further her job satisfaction.
“I absolutely asked for it because when you’re doing well that’s when they’ll give you everything,” she says. “People love when you tell them what you want, nobody can read your mind. I chose to ask for an executive to sponsor me when everything was in alignment. And a company wants to see their people grow, they want to see retention, they want to harvest their people.”
“I’m a massive advocate of tooting your own horn,” continues Halabi. “Let your colleagues know who you are and what you’re doing and they’ll take pride in your work.
“We all deserve recognition, but a lot of times it won’t come to you just because you’re working hard, because everybody is working hard.”
You might get a pat on the back and a raise every now and then, but that doesn’t immerse you into the fold.
When Halabi enquired about a sponsor, it was a brilliant move on her part because they put her in touch with the CEO of the New York headquarters.
When he offered a 30-minute phone call Halabi leveraged the tools around her and took the initiative to jump on a plane and meet her future sponsor face-to-face. It proved to be a smart, bold move that allowed her and her future sponsor to talk everything through. She left the meeting with a confirmation.
The jet-setting businesswoman has never looked back, becoming the company’s first female industry executive to be appointed in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since her employer’s inception in 1914.
“Connecting with someone like that made navigating the enterprise so much easier because he could look down from up top and tell me what my options were.”
Sought after executive coach Stein agrees that marketing yourself is a necessity. “Take risks. It’s hard for women or for anybody, but if it feels risky, that’s a good sign. If it’s too comfortable, then you’re not pushing. Take a risk and try it and then try harder.”
Women Need Sponsors
Sponsorship is particularly beneficial to female employees.
Women will often not put themselves forward for a position unless they feel they can tick off 100% of the skills.
The authors of The Confidence Code quantified this with research that showed men were ready to sign up when they had just 60% of the qualifications required while women were waiting to be perfect.
Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg expresses this in her book Lean In when she says, “If women try to get on top without a sponsor their careers will often stall.”
She also states that sponsored employees are more likely to ask for assignments and pay rises and are increasingly more satisfied with their career performance than their peers.
“Often times women are held back by fear - fear of making the wrong decision, drawing attention to themselves or overreaching – they have to get over that,” says Stein, adding that with a sponsor’s trust you’ll be guided to situations that require your particular talents to be successful.
Sponsors encourage you, introduce you and lead by example, they have the ability to enable your dreams.
The end result is ultimately better than you telling someone how good you or your business is… What exactly is that? Having someone else do it for you.