How to Navigate Your Career

Sponsors add value to your career in a deeper way than mentors. Here’s how to find the right person.

By Sheryl Nance-Nash

Women, especially women of color, face challenges when trying to successfully navigate the world of work alone. There’s nothing like having a mentor, but that’s just part of the equation. You need a sponsor too.

“The glass ceiling has been talked about for many years, but for women of color, that ceiling often feels like it is made of steel. Black women graduate from college, enter the workforce, and start businesses at the highest rates of any group, but we often see our career stall at a certain level. One of the best ways to break through is with the help of a sponsor,” says Christy Pruitt-Haynes, a coach and founder of OurTruths.com, an online resource that supports and advocates for Black women.

Yasmeen Duncan, founder of the Sisterhood Society for Women of Color, a nonprofit that works to empower women, agrees. “The career journey for WOC is different. There are mental and emotional acrobatics we have to work through daily, on top of giving 150 percent effort for the potential of consideration. Women of color need to have a sponsor to guide them in navigating the political terrain to secure their seats at the table. The support of a sponsor advocating and acting as a coach provides the mental agility needed for the journey of upward mobility.”

Sponsors as advocates are a not-so-secret weapon. “They have been granted access to the rooms, tables, and conversations we are still working to get to, and more importantly, they are willing to use their social and professional capital to bring us along as a plus one. OurTruths.com helps Black women learn how to select, engage, and create a mutually beneficial relationship with a sponsor,” says Pruitt-Haynes.

Sponsor vs. mentor
Dr. Diana Bilimoria, a Case Western Reserve University professor who researches diversity in the workplace, explains that a mentor is somebody who provides advice and guidance, usually has had more experience in the field or workplace, and understands the political and built-in structural realities of organizations, workplaces, and specific sectors. You might even find mentors outside your industry.

A sponsor is somebody who undertakes professional advocacy. “Sponsors are the people who will put your name forward when an opportunity is available. They’ll fight for you to get the resources in order to enable your leadership development. They will be the people who open doors, provide you network connections, and provide resources, visibility, and so on,” she says.

The roles of mentors and sponsors are complementary but not necessarily substitutable. “An employee—male or female, but particularly a woman—needs to have both mentors and sponsors. Many studies are beginning to find they are even more critical for purposes of advancement,” says Bilimoria.

Simply put, “mentors mold while sponsors spark,” says corporate consultant Brittany King, founder of She Beats It. “Sponsors take a much more vested role in the relationship by sparking connection and career growth. Sponsors allow their protégés to leverage their personal network and often vouch for them. Additionally, sponsors are most effective when they are at the senior level, having a deeper level of corporate influence.”

Don’t underestimate the importance of a sponsor, says JJ DiGeronimo, the author of Accelerate Your Impact and creator of an online sponsor course for women in business. More than 74 percent of the women DiGeronimo has worked with do not have career sponsors. So rip a page from the manual of the old boy network. “While diversity in leadership positions is improving, women still represent the minority,” says Kara Fasone, PhD, an industrial organizational psychologist with the Wise & Well Academy. “This could be due to the reality that men are 46 percent more likely than women to have active career sponsors. Sponsorship and advocacy are an important part of internal mobility. High-status individuals within an organization are oftentimes incredibly influential in decisions around high-visibility projects and promotions.”

How to choose a sponsor

First, critically reflect on your overall career aspirations. “Ask yourself where you’d like to be and what you’d like to achieve professionally within a year. Two years. Five-plus years. Then you can be strategic about whom to consider as a potential sponsor,” says Fasone.

Identify a leader within your organization who has expertise and experience that aligns with your career aspirations. This person should also be able to exercise influence on large projects, teams, and promotions. Are you currently connected to someone senior who is already a good fit? If so, focus on developing that relationship in a different way. Has a senior leader shown interest in your career? “The person doesn’t even have to be at your employer anymore to make an impact on your career. So look for senior connections within your industry and related industries,” says Fasone.

Your sponsor not only should have influence but should “have integrity, be respected, have the courage to address things, and be taken seriously. If not, their vouching for you will only negatively impact your moving forward,” says Duncan.

Take your time. “You don’t need a sponsor tomorrow. Develop these relationships over time and find the right fit. You’re looking for someone senior whose legacy you can support. As a woman, you can find a sponsor who is male or female. See how you fit into the projects that the sponsor is working on within your employer or the industry that you’re both in. It’s definitely not only about your needs. It’s very much a two-way street. Your skills and areas of expertise can help the sponsor achieve specific goals, so know your strengths and how you fit into that person’s legacy,” says Suzanne Brown, founder of Mompowerment, which helps companies and professional working mothers on work-life balance issues.

Consider volunteering to work on a project that will give you exposure, especially if it allows your strengths and areas of expertise to shine. If you and your potential sponsor work for the same employer, talk to people to find out about the projects or spread the word about your unique areas of expertise. If you’re an entrepreneur, this might mean volunteering to serve on the leadership committee of an association or industry event. See where you have natural touchpoints with senior leaders.

Take charge of the relationship. When you reach out to your potential sponsor, be direct. Clearly and concisely outline your goals, your expectations, and why you believe this person would make a great sponsor. “The onus is always on you, the protégé, to initiate the relationship and maintain regular contact. For any sponsoring relationship to be successful, the protégé must be biased toward action, willing to deliver on the counsel received, and able to demonstrate that the sponsor’s time and energy are well spent,” says Fasone.

Ask your potential sponsor to remain cognizant of your interests and skills when opportunities arise. If there is an immediate opportunity, ask your colleague to advance your interest. This may involve including you on a project team, putting you forward as a candidate for a new role or consulting opportunity, or recommending you for a speaking engagement.

Says Tatum Thomas, PhD, dean of the School of Continuing and Professional Studies at DePaul University, “At all costs, avoid being dormant, and then contacting someone for advocacy.”

Before Mariela De La Mora, a marketing and business strategist, started her own firm, she was the only woman of color in senior leadership at her company. She grew the marketing department from the ground up. She sponsored two people who she says were not “ideal candidates” on paper, due to foreign languages, dyslexia, skin color, and no previous experience. But when you have a champion, the unlikely becomes possible. Says De La Mora, “Neither of them would have been given the same chance as those without those same barriers. But they were able to learn, thrive, and tap into their talents, and ultimately they left to start their own successful businesses.” DW



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