Want to advance your career? Forget about mentors and find yourself a sponsor. Jillian Bolger explores the phenomenon gaining ground in the corporate world.
It’s a sad fact of life that women are underrepresented in the boardroom. Just eight per cent of Irish companies have a female CEO, compared to 14.6 percent in the United States, with women only making up twelve per cent of board members in Ireland.
Recent research from the Peterson Institute for International Economics and Ernst & Young shows that an organisation with 30 percent female leaders can significantly increase profitability, so it makes sense to ensure more women are being given a role in the upper echelons.
So is there a fast track way to increase your chances of rising to the top?
Finding a mentor might seem like a good place to start, but American economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett is a firm believer that sponsors, and not mentors, are the key to setting you on the path to promotions, pay rises and power. Author of Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor, the influential speaker believes that, “No matter how fiercely you lean in, you still need someone with power to lean in with you.”
But what exactly is a sponsor and can they prevent you from languishing in middle management – where so many talented women get stuck – for the rest of your career?
Unlike mentors, sponsors are often found higher up in your organisation, where they can open doors and advocate for you. By using their internal standing they can help to move your career to the next level. Where a mentor advises a sponsor will act. Their role is to help make you visible to decision makers within your company. They will connect you to career opportunities and champion you at the upper levels. They’ll ensure you have the inside track and help clear obstacles from your path.
You can’t simply pick a sponsor, however. You need to earn one by gaining their respect and showing them that you are a go-getter worth backing. You’ll need more than a track record in reliability; you’ll also need to show that you are trustworthy, loyal and capable of delivering outstanding results. By deciding to take you on, your sponsor is saying that they believe in your ability to succeed. Fail to perform and fulfil expectations and you risk compromising their reputation.
Sponsorship is a two-way street. A sponsor isn’t there to simply talk you up and give you a leg up the corporate ladder. They must stand to benefit from their role too. Their decision to sponsor you will be driven by a sense that your advancement will ultimately help them in some way. By advocating for you, they will hope that you, as their protégé, will excel and impress other senior management members within your organisation. Your success will reflect well on their profile as a leader, highlighting their ability to identify and nurture talent within the company.
But how do you stand out and get the attention of a potential sponsor?
Putting in exemplary performances and overdelivering is a sure-fire way to attract the right kind of attention. It takes more to impress than merely hitting deadlines and targets. You’ll need to stand out from your peers by putting yourself forward and taking on projects or roles that are beyond your usual remit, especially difficult or unpopular tasks that colleagues are likely to avoid. Doing so not only demonstrates commitment, but also shows that you are tenacious and ambitious. Make time to identify a unique skill that sets you apart from your team. It works to your advantage if it’s something your potential sponsor lacks, as you can use it to become indispensible. Maybe it’s an analytical mind, a tech competence or something you may even take for granted, like cultural diversity that can enhance your sponsor’s nous. Lastly, make sure that your achievements are on your would be sponsor’s radar. Document your successes and professionally communicate them to the person you are hoping to impress.
Don’t sell yourself short by simply listing your accomplishments: find a way to link them directly to business goals. This joined-up thinking highlights how your contribution is of value to the organisation and demonstrates an awareness to look beyond the normal parameters of your role. You’ll not only look like an attractive option to a sponsor, but this kind of performance and attention to detail can also set you apart as a strong candidate for promotion.
Who makes a good sponsor?
Unlike a mentor, your sponsor shouldn’t necessarily be a role model, or even someone whose management techniques you aspire to copy. You are looking for a powerfully positioned colleague, not someone whose leadership you admire. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Sylvia Ann Hewlett reveals that high-potential women who seek sponsorship from “collaborative, inclusive leaders” because they embody or hope to emulate that style of leadership won’t necessarily succeed because “those aren’t the leaders with the power to push, promising women to the corporate heights.” A good sponsor is someone with similar goals and aspirations whom you respect. Look beyond your immediate management circle: you need someone in a real position of power. In large organisations, look two levels above your position, maybe to your boss’s boss or someone at that level with a connection to your position. In a smaller company, look to the CEO or a board member to champion you.
Do you know an Irish businesswoman we need to know about? IMAGE Businesswoman of the year 2016 is taking place on Monday, November 21st 2016 and we are looking for women who excel in their field. If you know a deserving client, colleague or friend, why not nominate them now. Or why not nominate yourself? Click HERE to do so.
Closing date for entries is: Friday, October 14.