By Rebecca Shambaugh, President and CEO, Shambaugh Leadership
Recently I had the honor of doing a global webcast on the topic of sponsorship. Apparently it was one of the more well attended webcasts for this organization, which tells me that sponsorship is a topic people are keenly interested in.
Before we go any further, I think it’s important to clarify the difference between mentoring and sponsoring – and there is a difference, a big difference. A mentor is someone who acts as a resource and role model, offers advice and counsel, and provides perspective and constructive criticism. A sponsor can also be a mentor, but a sponsor takes it to the next level by being willing to advocate on a protégé’s behalf with respect to advancement and strategic opportunities. Sponsorship means that someone at a high enough level to be influential is committed to you becoming an executive.
Without sponsorship, both men and women are likely to be overlooked for promotions – regardless of their competence or performance – particularly in upper management and above where the competition for promotions increases. As you move through the leadership pipeline, it’s critical that you have a sponsor who has the positional power to help influence your advancement.
While men are more naturally sponsored by senior executives, many surveys indicate that high-potential women are over-mentored and under-sponsored relative to their male peers and that this is a key reason they are not advancing in their organizations. While women are known for their ability to build and nurture relationships, they sometimes fail to cultivate and invest in relational capital. Sponsorship is a very effective method for tapping into the rich, talented, and large pool of women who are just below the C-suite level but who don’t get noticed or considered for higher-level positions.
So how can progressive organizations utilize sponsorship to advance more women into the senior ranks and maximize the full spectrum of gender intelligence? Clearly women bear a big responsibility. But, perhaps surprisingly, men also play a significant role as do organizations themselves. For now, let’s look at what women can do to gain more sponsorship:
1. Build and leverage a meaningful network.
Many women resist the idea that “who you know” is helpful in advancing up the corporate ladder, clinging instead to the belief that promotions are a result of accomplishments and hard work. Consequently, they build relationships with people who can help them do their current job well rather than developing relationships with key decision makers who will ultimately help them get promoted. Remember that a potential sponsor should have credibility and influence and be connected to the senior staff in some way—either they are executives themselves, or they “have the ear” of senior staff. Look around. Whom haven’t you thought about? Think beyond your own web of connections and share your career goals with others who can suggest sponsors to you.
2. Know what you want in terms of your career.
You need to know what you want in order to determine who you need to help you get it. Begin by writing down a career goal you want to achieve in the next year. This will help you to be intentional about seeking out the right people to have in your network. It’s up to you to put together a plan and then rally the right people to sponsor you. So it’s important that you know what you want and what specifically you want each person to do for you.
3. Put yourself out there to engage them.
Once you’ve identified several people who might be potential sponsors, you need to figure out how to get on their radar and build a relationship with them. Ask yourself what you are willing to do to get in front of that person. Whom might you know to ask for an introduction? What events does the person speak at, or what committees does he or she sit on? Attending industry events, making presentations, or publishing within your industry is a great way to be recognized as a thought leader, which you can then bring inside the company to gain greater credibility with the CEO and his or her team.
The bottom line is that you need to figure out where and how you can get access to this person. At the end of the day, this often involves doing things that don’t come naturally for many women. But if you really want to become an executive, you need to be able to do this, and so I suggest that you live with the discomfort and do it anyway!
4. Ask for what you want!
Women still have this idea that if we just do a good job, someone’s going to tap us on the shoulder and reward us with a promotion. That so rarely happens! I have found that executives are willing to help you if you are clear on how they can help you. Remember, no one is a mind reader! So avoid indirect requests and be clear and concise when communicating your goals and how each person can help you.
Be sure you share your value equation as well as your career goals up front and communicate why you think this individual is the right person to help you. Also be sure you gain agreement regarding exactly what this person will do for you and don’t assume anything and if the person doesn’t feel he or she is able (or willing) to help you, be OK with it. There are lots of potential sponsors out there!
5. Give Men a Chance!
In SHAMBAUGH’s Women in Leadership and Learning Program (WILL) we emphasize the importance of not only having men in your network but also to consider men as a sponsor. Men still hold the majority of executive positions and have the clout to make things happen (or not happen) in regard to your career. I’ve found men very willing to help when I’ve been clear about what I want them to do. They don’t seem to respond as well to indirect requests or vague messages, and so being clear and concise with them in essential. One approach I’ve used successfully is to “consult” with them by explaining a situation or problem and ask for their advice. Then you conclude with a specific request—asking them to do something for you that involves advocacy. And while this request for sponsorship only pertains to a particular situation, you will actually begin to build a bridge for future requests. This is why it’s important for you to be thinking about how you can bring value in return—so you can reciprocate. This is what builds relationship intimacy in the long term.
6. Help other women along the way.
Over the course of my career, I have had the good fortune to have had supportive women colleagues and bosses. However, I also often hear about how women struggle with their female bosses or how other women sabotage them or talk poorly about them in conversations with their colleagues. In fact, there have been several studies that indicate that more than 50 percent of men and women agreed that women are harder on other women in the workplace than they are on men.
The big message for women is that we all have to play this game together. In some ways women are not as good as men in supporting each other. One of the first things we can do is watch how we talk about other women. Be sure you speak to their strengths and give them the credit and opportunities they deserve. It’s also important for us to look at ways to mentor or sponsor other women. I invite you to be an inspiration for other women. Every day you have an impact on women who are aspiring leaders. The saying “It takes a village” is so true, and women need to be truly supportive of one another. If you are in an influential role and you don’t see women moving through the leadership pipeline, be the one in a room who pushes back and says there’s something wrong. And if you are the only female executive in the company, go to your human resource or talent management team and ask the people there to find more women to assume senior leadership roles in your organization.
For more information link to SHAMBAUGH’s Corporate Sponsorship Model and Programs and their Women In Leadership and Learning (WILL) Program which is nationally recognized leadership program that is known for its results in the development, advancement, and retention of organizations top talented women leaders. To learn more about the Sticky Floors check out Rebecca’s bestselling book, It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky Floor, and for more information about SHAMBAUGH’s Executive Coaching and other Leadership Development Programs visit www.shambaughleadership.com.