(By Sylvia Ann Hewlett)
“Your targeted sponsor may exercise authority in a way you don’t care to copy but it’s their clout, not their style, that will turbocharge your career. Their powerful arsenal includes the high-level contacts they can introduce you to, the stretch assignments that will advance your career, their broad perspective when they give critical feedback.“
As part of her employer’s mentoring program, every month Willa meets one-on-one with Joan, a former EVP at the same global financial services firm. Warm and nurturing, Joan is a tireless champion of working mothers like Willa, having herself negotiated a flex arrangement working out of her home in Connecticut while overseeing operations in India.
Joan is unquestionably Willa’s role model as well as mentor. But is she the senior leader best positioned to get Willa promoted to her dream job of heading up M&A at corporate headquarters? Probably not.
As sympathetic confidants, mentors can’t be beat. They listen to your issues, offer advice, and review approaches to solving problems. The whole idea of having a mentor is to discuss what you cannot or dare not bring up with your boss or colleagues. But when it comes to powering your career up the corporate heights, you need a sponsor. As I explain in my new book, Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor, sponsors may advise or steer you but their chief role is to develop you as a leader. Why? Not so much from like-mindedness or altruism, but because furthering your career helps further their career, organization or vision. Where a mentor might help you envision your next position, a sponsor will advocate for your promotion and lever open the door. Sponsorship doesn’t “rig the game”; on the contrary, it ensures you get what you deserve — and will propel your career far more than mentors can.
When scanning the horizon for would-be sponsors — and yes, you need more than one — many high-potential women make the mistake of focusing on role models rather than powerfully positioned sponsors. My research shows that they align themselves with people whom they trust and like or who, they believe, trust and like them. According to survey data from the Center for Talent Innovation, 49% of women in the marzipan layer, that talent-rich band just under the executive level, search for support among someone “whose leadership style I admire.” What style is that? Forty-two percent are looking for sponsorship from collaborative, inclusive leaders because that style of leadership is one they embody or hope to emulate.
The problem is, those aren’t the leaders with the power to push promising women to the corporate heights. CTI research found that only 28% of men and women at U.S. companies say that inclusive collaborators represent the dominant style of leadership at their firm. Instead, nearly half of respondents — 45% — say the most prevalent model is the classic, command-and-control leader who wants his lieutenants to fall in line behind him. Twenty percent perceive their top management to be competitive types — hard-edged, hard-driving guys who value quarterly bottom-line results above all. Very few — 6% — describe their chief as a charismatic visionary who, because he or she is focused on the big picture, seeks out tactical, pragmatic support.
In short, what female talent values and seeks in a sponsor just isn’t on offer among those with real power in the organization. This profound mismatch helps explain why so many women — 40% — fail to find the real deal: Sponsors who can deliver. As one woman ruefully told me, “I wasted ten years talking to the wrong people.”
To avoid that mistake, be strategic as you search your galaxy of supporters for would-be sponsors. 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, that will turbocharge your career. Their powerful arsenal includes the high-level contacts they can introduce you to, the stretch assignments that will advance your career, their broad perspective when they give critical feedback .
Look beyond your immediate circle of mentors and managers. While you should, of course, impress your boss — who can be a valuable connection to potential sponsors — seek out someone with real power to change your career. Would-be sponsors in large organizations are ideally two levels above you with line of sight to your role; in smaller firms, they’re either the founder or president or are part of his or her inner circle.
Sponsors don’t just magically appear, like fairy godmothers (or godfathers), to hard-working Cinderellas. Sponsorship must be earned, as I’ll describe in my next post — not once but continually. But when you link up to the right sponsor, the result can change your career.
“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”