Women are over-mentored and under-sponsored. Mentors coach and guide you with career advice, and they provide a perspective. Sponsors are senior-level people in an organization who have the reputation and credentials to put you forward for positions. They believe in your potential and advocate for your career; they risk their reputation when they back you. They are your ticket to the top.
Gaining the support of a sponsor will have a pivotal effect on your professional trajectory. It makes all the difference to have someone who either is in your command chain or has authority, who recognizes your potential and actively works on taking you to the next level.
While a mentor can teach and advise from any level of greater experience when you request guidance, a sponsor can improve your job options throughout your career. From an influential management level, your sponsor has made an active investment in you with some expectation of results (i.e., your efforts make your sponsor look good), is willing to advocate for you, and has the power to recommend you for particular companies and positions, putting her or his reputation behind you.
Sponsors are often the decisive factor in getting a strategic project, visibility, the next promotion, or a raise. When a leader sponsors someone, the leader’s reputation is on the line, so it is prudent for them to perform their due diligence in getting to know the abilities and potential of the person they are considering sponsoring.
Preparing a person to be sponsored can involve giving her special projects and — at times — direct feedback on areas that need to be improved to get to the next level.
One of my friends once said, “Lift while you climb.” One role of senior leaders in a company is to identify individuals in the company who are capable of taking on larger leadership responsibilities and giving those individuals the opportunities both to increase their leadership skills and to have opportunities to gain visibility within the company. This is what sponsorship is all about. It’s wise for anyone in a leadership position to advocate for and “raise others up,” just as they advocate for and promote themselves. Helping each other reach their potential helps the company and fosters a better world.
Deciding whom to sponsor is currently a subjective decision. All too often, male senior leaders direct the benefits of sponsorship to people who are similar to themselves. That may help to explain why men get more promotions than women. Data from McKinsey & Company indicates that for every 100 women promoted to manager, 130 men are promoted. More work needs to be done to encourage senior male leaders to be more objective in choosing whom to sponsor.
Apart from sponsorship, mentors and role models are vital. Although there are far more men than women in most workplaces, it’s useful for both men and women to have a mix of male and female mentors. Having diverse mentors helps us learn different perspectives and different ways to handle situations we find ourselves in.
We need women to start mentoring both men and women in the workplace.
Role models can work in a similar way to mentors. Many of the people who have the leadership qualities that we would want to emulate may not have the time or inclination to sit down with us and be our personal mentors. But that doesn’t mean we can’t view them from afar and learn from them by example.
The best way to the bridge the gap between male and female leadership is to sponsor high-potential women. According to a report by Judith Warner, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, it’s been estimated that with the current rate of change, it will take until 2085 for women to reach parity with men in leadership roles. But that doesn’t deter me from dreaming of the day when we have diversity of thought and opinion in leadership, and we talk about sponsoring a high-potential individual rather someone than based on their gender or race. In essence, diversity becomes a way of life.
About the Author: Pratima Rao Gluckman is an engineering leader in Silicon Valley. She is also a co-owner of a start-up, Innovation for Youth, which is a STEM-education enrichment company. She is the author of the book Nevertheless, She Persisted: True Stories of Women Leaders in Tech for which she interviewed 19 female executives about their encounters with bias, their influences and inspirations, and their strategies for success. For more information, please visit https://pratimagluckman.com/.