Looking for More Women in Leadership: Don’t Ask for Mentors, Ask for Sponsors
Asking for the right type of help can be challenging, especially if you are an already-experienced professional seeking your first leadership role. While many pipeline initiatives dedicate themselves to bridging the gender gap in STEM education (e.g., Girls Who Code) and entry-level professionals (e.g., Girls in Tech), few are focused on addressing the emerging leadership problem.
Part of a solution could be via mentorships and sponsors. The difference is critical: mentors can help make introductions and give valuable advice, and sponsors often go one step (or many steps) further, leveraging their own reputation and personal capital to advocate for your success.
Advancing Women in Product (AWIP) recently surveyed 600+ of its members for its Future of Women Report and one major theme among respondents that occurred was, “How do I find sponsors who are willing to spend their personal capital on me?” In more technical fields, participants wanted to know, “How do I find female sponsors in male-dominated organizations?”
The majority of Fortune 500 executives are men; according to a recent Fortune article, women are the chief executives of just 4.8% of the most profitable companies in the US. With such a stark contrast, what can be done to address the leadership gap?
Creating Upward Mobility
Professor Herminia Ibarra of the London Business School, who specializes in organizational behavior and dynamics, corroborates this phenomenon in her article for the Harvard Business Review. She states that “Ensuring that women get the sponsorship they need to move up has proved elusive for most organizations.”
Many instances of upward mobility can be directly traced back to sponsorship, and as the 2019 Future of Women study discovered: respondents who had a sponsor achieved higher titles and incomes than those without one.
A 2016 McKinsey Women Matter study shed light on why the glass ceiling exists for women. In many large companies, as professionals advance, two tracks quickly emerge: one, responsible for overall business performance and revenue, and the other, responsible for specific aspects of the business that require specialized knowledge. The study found that more women, once they moved beyond upper-middle management, compared to men gravitate away from the first track and more towards the latter.
In many growth-stage companies or Fortune 500 stalwarts, managing business performance or owning a P&L is a rite of passage to the upper echelons of senior leadership. While there may not be one root cause for this trend, one datapoint uncovered in the AWIP Future of Women Study was that respondents centered their challenges around having their voices heard.
One of the most salient takeaways from Ibarra’s article is the impact of sponsors on a professional’s career arc. “While a mentor is someone who has the knowledge and will share it with you, a sponsor is a person who has power and will use it for you,” says Ibarra. So then why are there so many mentoring programs for women and not sponsorships?
The outcomes were astounding: according to the McKinsey study, even though companies were assigning more women than men a formal mentor in the organization, women were less likely to have had a senior leader outside their direct chain of management sponsor upward mobility in their career. Without delving into the efficacy of mentorship, sponsorship (or the building of a close professional relationship) clearly has a pronounced impact on the career arc of the proteges.
And because sponsorship is highly dependent on the personal relationship between the protege and the sponsor, company mandates can be ineffective. While it can be relatively straightforward to create official mentoring programs, how do you ask senior executives to spend their personal capital by recommending someone? The key, Ibarra alludes, is to not paint sponsorship in a binary light; rather it is a spectrum:
At every stage, there are tangible benefits the sponsor can provide the protegé, even if it is not all the way to fighting for someone’s promotion or hire. The truth is if you can get someone to take a step beyond simply giving advice, to helping you build personalized career strategy, maybe even introducing you to contacts in their networks you will have gained manyfold beyond simply garnering advice (much of which can already be gleaned in professional blogs). But how do you find that person? How do you know if they will say yes?
Because personal capital is limited, and sponsor choices are also limited to those who have the most power over promotions and projects – especially within Fortune 500 companies – the most powerful sponsors tend to be men. The AWIP Future of Women study learned from its respondents that, as a woman or minority, you gravitate towards those who resemble you in some way, whether that is gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic background. However, the right sponsor should also have the necessary clout to make something happen for you; therefore, selecting the right sponsor becomes less of an emotional connection but a professional identification. According to Katherine Coffman, an Assistant Professor of Negotiations, Organizations, and Markets at Harvard Business School, some companies have built on this aspect by establishing formal ‘sponsorship’ (not mentorship) programs. She states, “Sponsorship builds on traditional mentorship by adding a more transactional nature to the relationship. It’s not just the altruistic view; it’s that if my protégé does well, I do well, too.”
This is the mentality I encourage both sponsors and proteges to adopt.
As a protege, look for a sponsor with whom you not only relate but also has the necessary clout to achieve the right outcome for you. If it happens to be a man, because your industry happens to be dominated by men, then so be it. Learn from him and leverage his sponsorship to in turn help yourself and future generations who come after you.
For sponsors, seriously consider either starting a sponsorship program at your company or becoming a sponsor yourself. This goes back to the quality over quantity: while you may sponsor as many proteges as you can mentor, it will provide a higher level of satisfaction knowing that you had a profound impact on your protegé’s career arc. Establishing that personal connection will both satisfy your desires to “give back” and also leave a lasting, positive impact on others as an outcome of your sponsorship.
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