Why women need a sponsor for career development

Think you're all set because you have a mentor? Think again. A survey shows that a sponsor can help women further their careers more than a mentor.

Why women need a sponsor for career development

Think you’re all set because you get great career guidance from a mentor? Think again. A Catalyst survey found that women who have mentors are less likely to be promoted than women with sponsors. That’s because sponsors help you identify and take advantage of career opportunities.  

After reviewing several data sets and interviewing high-potential men and women, researchers found that men are more likely to have sponsors -- mentors who advise and advocate, using their sway to help protégés land high-level assignments and positions. Because women typically don’t have mentors, they don’t advance as far or as fast.

“Everyone’s heard of the importance of having a mentor who gives advice and how to develop, but a sponsor helps you get ahead,” says Christine Silva, director of research at Catalyst and the study’s co-author. “He or she is someone who’s senior in your organization who will advocate on your behalf for development and promotion opportunities.”

Strategic Partnership

Sponsorship is more strategic, less developmental than mentoring, according to Steve Langerud, director of professional opportunities at DePauw University. “The role of sponsor is to ask what you can do for an employer, not what can be done to develop you as a person and/or professional,” he says. “The focus is on creating, demonstrating and leveraging work product that can be used to position you for advancement either internally or externally.”

By helping you find projects or job openings that will help you advance, sponsors take a more active role in your career development. They advocate for you, assist you in gaining visibility in your company and industry, and fight to help you rise through the ranks.

“My sponsor kept her ear to the ground for better job openings, and she really pushed my [participation] in education and volunteer activities that both directly and indirectly benefited me professionally,” says Carolyn Evans, a PR professional in Chapin, South Carolina. “When my professional growth at my first job had peaked, she suggested I volunteer for a nonprofit, knowing they would be adding positions in the new year. I ended up landing a job with that organization, which led to my next job, too.”

Business Intelligence

So how do you identify a professional who can help get you to where you want to go? Look for a senior-level person who has “the power and position to open doors for you,” Silva says. This person can be in your company, an influential member in your field or industry, or even a professor.

Los Angeles-based Ingrid Vanderveldt found her first sponsor, George Kozmetsky, while getting her MBA at the University of Texas in Austin. Kozmetsky was the school’s dean and well-connected in the technology world as the former CEO of Teledyne. (In fact, he mentored Michael Dell). With an interest in technology, Vanderveldt sought him out. “He taught me the ropes,” says Vanderveldt, managing partner of Ingrid Vanderveldt LLC, a parent company for several entrepreneurial ventures. “And he introduced me to Admiral [Bobby Ray] Inman and convinced him to invest the first $50,000 I ever raised. Those two made my deal go.”

Joint Venture

Once you’ve identified a sponsor, you then have to show him why it’s worth his while to go to bat for you.

“You need to be excellent at your job and have the necessary skills and experience under your belt,” Silva says. This is why you may still want a mentor to provide the business coaching you need to build the correct competencies.

Some ways to get noticed include:

  • Asking your mentor to introduce you to key decision makers.
  • Joining professional networks.
  • Expressing interest in mentoring and leadership development programs.
  • Requesting to be put on high-profile projects or high-visibility teams.
  • Using your existing network to get introductions to top-level people.
  • Attending industry and corporate events that draw high-level influencers.
  • Volunteering for charitable or community activities that provide an opportunity to work alongside potential sponsors.

When you find the right person, ask for a meeting. “Take 30 minutes or take them to lunch and tell them you really admire their work and vision,” Evans suggests. “Then ask if they would be willing to work with you on your career growth.” And if they decline? Don’t take it personally. Ask for advice as well as suggestions for other potential sponsors. Also ask to keep the person in your professional network.

Once you’ve got a sponsor, remember it’s a two-way street. “Know how you can act in service to them,” Vanderveldt says. “And if you don’t know, ask.”

Of course, the best payoff for your sponsor is to see you achieve your goals. “Sure, sponsors know of great jobs that pay a ton or projects that will get you noticed,” Evans says. “But they’re more than a personal job-posting board. They want you to succeed.”