Sponsorship Matters

Recently I had the honor of doing a global webcast for The Conference Board on the topic of sponsorship. Apparently it was one of the more well attended webcasts for The Conference Board, 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 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.

SHAMBAUGH has created a practice area that is designed to help organizations utilize sponsorship to advance more women into the senior ranks and maximize the full spectrum of human intelligence. Clearly women bear a big responsibility. But, perhaps surprisingly, men also play a significant role as do organizations themselves. We’ll examine the roles and responsibilities of men and organizations in Parts II and III, respectively. For now, let’s look at what women can do to gain more sponsorship:

  • 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. This is why it’s crucial to cultivate a rich and diverse network of executives (both men and women).
  • 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.
  • Consider potential sponsors. Once you have your goal in mind, consider people who are already in your network that you might convert to sponsors. They 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. And don’t forget that your current mentors can become sponsors.
  • Put yourself out there to engage them. Once you’ve identified several people who might be sponsor material, you need to figure out how to get in front of them, and build a relationship with them. In order for people to buy-in to you and want to support your advancement, they have to get to know you as a person and then learn more about your career goals as well as your unique value proposition. One way to start building these relationships is by working on a task force, joining a committee or engaging in a social event that a particular executive sponsors. Also consider who you both know that might be willing to introduce you.
  • Ask for what you want! Tory Johnson, CEO of Women For Hire, shared great insight on this topic: “[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! It’s up to you and you alone to put together a plan and then rally the right people to sponsor you.” 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.

Sponsorship can be a key factor in helping organizations create Integrated Leadership teams and thereby produce better business results. Next month, we’ll look at how men can better sponsor capable women leaders.

To learn more about SHAMBAUGH’s Sponsorship programs and consulting services and our other leadership development and coaching services visit www.shambaughleadership.com

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Rebecca Shambaugh

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