I’m a passionate believer in the power of mentorship. My mentors guided me practically and philosophically, served as my sounding board, saw talents in me I didn’t know I had, and showed confidence in me when I lacked it in myself. I view them all as collaborators in my success, and speaking as a mentor myself, I do my best to pay it forward. But while I believe that women need effective mentorship to help them advance, I’ve come to believe that mentorship isn’t enough. Women need sponsorship.
Sponsorship is critical to helping them get noticed by senior executives, recommended for key assignments and considered for the top jobs. But evidence suggests that women are failing to get the sponsorship they need from the powerful men and women in their companies.
What, exactly, is sponsorship? And how does it differ from mentorship? According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, one of the authors of The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling, a significant study about the state of sponsorship in the corporate world, a sponsor is someone who uses chips on his or her protégé’s behalf and advocates for his or her next promotion, as well as doing at least two of the following: expanding the perception of what the protégé can do, making connections to senior leaders, promoting his or her visibility, opening up career opportunities, offering advice on appearance and executive presence, making connections outside the company, and giving advice. As Hewlett puts it, “Mentors proffer friendly advice. Sponsors pull you up to the next level.”
Sponsors certainly helped jet propel my career by offering me pivotal opportunities and helping connect me to the right people. One of my sponsors decided I needed to gain more exposure at the company’s international level and tapped me to lead a team to develop our customer experience strategy worldwide. It was the first time I’d been given the chance to showcase my abilities at the company’s most senior level, and that opportunity opened a lot of important doors for me.
Another sponsor offered me the job of VP of Sales — a promotion I’d never have gone after on my own since I’d come up through marketing and had never so much as sold a Girl Guide cookie! But that opportunity was also pivotal: it positioned me for the president’s job.
I think if we’re to move the needle in the right direction on the sponsorship issue, we need to pay attention to what the research is telling us, and what it’s telling us is this: while female mentors are great role models, terrific at building confidence, sharing vulnerabilities, and advising on how to navigate the gender divide — all of which are vitally important — male mentors tend to be far more focused on helping their protégés get a leg up and secure promotions. And for a whole host of complicated reasons, their protégés tend to be male.
I believe that we should be sponsoring all of our standout talent, and not just because it’s the right thing to do. After all, if you give all the rock stars in your company a stage where they can perform at the highest level, they’re going to grow your audience.