Sponsors Help Women Advance

Diversity Insider: Ruchika Tulshyan

22.DivInsiderI’m tired of hearing the oft-repeated wisdom: “women need to find mentors to ensure career success.” This is yet another step on the “fix women” ladder; women are constantly being told we should negotiate better, take greater risks, and “lean in” to get ahead. But much of this advice ignores the realities of the workplace today, including the implicit biases women face when they advocate for themselves or speak up at work.

Similarly, regardless of how powerful a mentoring relationship is, that alone is less likely to accelerate a woman’s career. Women have no dearth of professional mentors: 83 percent of women report having at least one mentor in their careers, compared to 76 percent of men. In fact, 21 percent of women report having four or more mentors, whereas just 15 percent of men report having that many.

So why are the upper echelons of most organizations still lined by white men? That’s because men are 46 percent more likely than women to have a sponsor.

While mentorships are often informal relationships, sponsors are advocates for a professional’s advancement within her organization. Many strategic decisions, such as staffing an organization’s most visible projects or highest promotions, are still made informally—on golf courses or over dinner. Finding an advocate within these circles can help high-potential women and leaders of color get much-deserved access and visibility.

Women often shy away from networking with a purpose, considering it to be exploitative. But men rarely feel the same way, and they often end up with advocates who later become key to their career growth.

Here are some actionable strategies to finding the right sponsor.

Be strategic about whom you consider as a potential sponsor. Identify a leader in your organization—that person doesn’t have to look like you but must be able to exercise influence on large projects, teams, and promotions. Speak to your boss, or a mentor, about who could be a valuable sponsor and the best way to approach the would-be sponsor.

Once the connection is made, don’t beat around the bush. Be direct about your career goals. You’re not looking for general advice or a shoulder to cry on. When a sponsor-protégé relationship develops, the sponsor is equipped to advocate for you when big projects are being planned, share powerful contacts, and advise you on moves that would advance your career.

The onus is always on the protégé to develop the relationship and maintain regular contact. For any sponsoring relationship to be successful, the protégé must be a high achiever who delivers on the action plan that she develops with her sponsor.

Does sponsorship really work? Research by the Center for Talent Innovation finds that men and women with sponsors are more likely to ask for pay raises (and get them), request to join a high-visibility team, and experience greater career satisfaction.

Sponsors also benefit in their own careers by developing protégés. Data finds that sponsors are overall more satisfied with their careers, more likely to advance in their own careers, and even experience a slight monetary boost compared with leaders who don’t sponsor.

Thankfully, more organizations are starting to recognize the importance of formal sponsorship programs and the impact they have on diversifying leadership teams. DW

Ruchika Tulshyan is the author of The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality in The Workplace (Forbes, 2015). She has written for the Wall Street Journal, Time, and Bloomberg, among other media. 

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