Jo Miller Answers: One of my favorite articles on the topic of women’s career advancement is Harvard Business Review’s Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women. One year after the article first appeared, in September 2010, I still believe the authors have stumbled upon a game-changing, ground-breaking insight into how women can advance their careers.
The report draws from Catalyst’s research to describe how men and women have roughly equal access to mentors, with women slightly more likely to report having being mentored. However men are still gaining an edge in the career opportunities that result. So the authors asked “If the women are being mentored so thoroughly, why aren’t they moving into higher management positions?”
Read the full article if you have time, and if you do not, here are my key take-aways:
- In comparison to their male peers, women are more likely to be mentored.
- But all mentorships are not equal when it comes to delivering career advancement. The difference is sponsorship, when the mentor uses their influence to get a protégée exposure to the networks and opportunities that lead to promotions.
- Men and women both receive valuable advice from their mentors, but it’s more likely for men to describe being sponsored.
- The more senior and more influential the mentor, the more rapid the mentee’s career advancement will be.
“There is a special kind of relationship—called sponsorship—in which the mentor goes beyond giving feedback and advice and uses his or her influence with senior executives to advocate for the mentee. Our interviews and surveys alike suggest that high-potential women are overmentored and undersponsored relative to their male peers—and that they are not advancing in their organizations.”
Another study published in 2011 by the Center for Work-Life Policy found that indeed, men and women who are sponsored are more satisfied with their advancement and are more likely to have access to stretch assignments than those who do not have sponsors. The Center for Work-Life Policy defines a sponsor as someone who does a combination of the following: uses chips on your behalf, advocates for your next promotion, promotes your visibility, gives career advice, makes connections for you, and connects you to opportunities.
“The concept of sponsorship is relevant to women across sectors,” said Simard. “In academia, where most senior positions are few and far between, having the right publications is not sufficient. You need the most influential academics in your field to vouch for you – through letters of recommendations, calls to the heads of hiring committees, and to talk up your scientific contributions to the field.”
The authors of the HBR report concluded by summarizing what companies could do to advance women (less over-mentoring, more sponsorship, and more accountable sponsorship) but my interest lies more in what women can do with this knowledge, to take charge of their own career advancement. Regardless of whether you are in industry, academia, or government, if you are over-mentored and under-sponsored, are ready for advancement, seeking a challenging new opportunity, or have career goals that are unmet, here are three things to try doing more of.
1. Keep mentors and sponsors separate
When I mentioned the topic of sponsorship recently to a female Chief Information Officer, she mentioned the potential for conflict to arise when one advisor acts as both mentor and sponsor.
“A sponsor is someone who will support you in your career,” the CIO explained. “They make the phone calls to say, ‘Give her the opportunity.’ They know what you’re capable of and they’re willing to kind of put their neck on the line. The mentor’s role is to really help you develop your capabilities, your skills, your political acumen, and whatever it is that you’re working on. Your sponsor is someone who’s there for you in your career. You really don’t want your sponsor to know all the ugly stuff. You want them to focus on the good stuff, the results, and what you’ve done. That isn’t really a mentor’s role.”
Consider keeping your mentors separate from your sponsors, to get the most out of both types of relationship.
Michele Johnston Holthaus, General Manager of Channel Platforms and Strategy with Intel, recommends having direct conversations to share your ideal career path with sponsors who have the ability to influence that outcome. “I think the biggest mistake of people that I coach and mentor is having conversations with them where they have very clearly laid out the next job is or the next opportunity that they want,” said Johnston. “When I ask them the question, ‘Well, have you had a discussion with that manager about you wanting to be the replacement when your manager leaves or somebody else on staff leaves?’ It is shocking to me how many times I hear a ‘no.’ We often just expect our manager to know that. I cannot say enough: you need to ask.”
3. Build a diversified network of advocates
Johnston Holthaus also recommends having more than one sponsor. “I would recommend that everyone needs to have three to four advocates outside of their direct management chain. You need to build networks so that you have people who are looking for opportunities for you.”
I coached a woman executive recently who had mapped out an aggressive career path to advance within the technology company she works for. She is delivering results, adding value, and has is highly thought of by her peers and her boss. After a discussion about the importance of sponsors, she listed the names of leaders who would have input into any decision to promote her. Some were already her sponsors, but there was an entire layer of leadership at the senior executive level that she wasn’t sure would advocate for her if she was a candidate for promotion. She has created a plan to strengthen relationships with those executives, get to know them and their goals, demonstrate her effectiveness, and either engage them as a sponsor or overcome any concerns they may have that could derail her advancement.
Think about the next job you would like to have. When that opportunity opens up will it be your name that is mentioned? Don’t rely on mentoring alone to get you there. In addition to having mentors, line up a diversified network of influential advocates and educate them about your value and your career goals.
Finally, remember that top leaders are expected to be identifying and cultivating talent and that sponsoring others is critical to their success. You can empower your leaders by engaging them as sponsors.
It is her belief that good leaders should always be seeking to understand where the talent is in the organization, but at the same time, women need to make their value known to their leaders. “There are a lot of opportunities that do not exist today,” said Postel. “They might exist one month from now, or a year from now. Often, new positions come up and (leaders) have to make quick decisions.”
To learn more about sponsorship revisit the webinar “Sponsors: Your Advocates for Advancement” with guest speakers, Cindy Kent, Healthcare Executive at Medtronic and Amanda Martinez, EVP, Operations & Administration at Annie's Inc.
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