The strategy most people overlook? Landing a career sponsor

By Elizabeth Bromstein

Why you need a career sponsor The career sponsor is not a new strategy, but it has been getting some buzz lately with articles on the subject appearing in Forbes, Working Mother and The Harvard Business Review. The gist? Lack of sponsorship is yet another reason women are getting shafted in the workplace.

According to the Center for Work Life Policy in New York City, despite gains in middle and senior management, women hold just 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions. In the C-suite as a whole, we’re outnumbered four to one. A recently published report from the Center finds that we’re being kept down by “the absence of male advocacy” or a lack of sponsorship.

The study launched in 2009 — led by American Express, Deloitte, Intel, and Morgan Stanley — found that women underestimate the importance of sponsorship and that even those who do understand it don’t pursue it.

To be clear, there’s a difference between a sponsor and a mentor. A mentor offers guidance and support. A sponsor goes to bat on your behalf. The sponsor already works at the company where you want to work or want to get promoted. Forbes says, “Usually an established leader in a high position, a sponsor throws your name in the hat and lobbies to move your name to the top of the list.”

And a lot more men have them than women. Why?

Interestingly, the report found that many women think getting ahead through connections is a dirty tactic and that they should be relying on plain old hard work to move up.

Pfffft. That’s just naïve, and a good way to ensure you never get anywhere. LOTS of people work hard. And unless you have a very specific skill set for a very specialized field, there’s a good chance that there are plenty of qualified candidates for that job you want. So, given a selection of, say, three qualified candidates, all other things being equal, the manager is naturally going to pick the person they like, and that person is often going to be the one who has made some effort to “connect.”

Another deterrent, says the study, is that people are afraid of giving the wrong impression, since sponsorship “often involves an older, married male spending time with a younger female…Sponsorship can be misconstrued as sexual interest, so ambitious women and highly placed men avoid it.”

Interesting. But I’m guessing that a truly ambitious woman wouldn’t actually worry about that, setting the distinction between her and the only sort of ambitious woman.

So, how does one go about getting a sponsor? I contacted Allison Hemming, a career expert and CEO of New York based talent agency Hired Guns to get her advice, which you can use whether you’re male or female. I’m not sexist.

Hemming says the first thing you need to understand is that it takes time to build a relationship with a sponsor. “We’re at a time right now with technology moving fast, relationships moving fast, social media, it seems that something like finding a corporate sponsor should be fast and easy but it’s not. This person should be with you for a very long time and because of that you have to earn their trust.

“You have to do things that will make them want to go to bat for you, believe in you. You need to demonstrate that you’re worthy of their sponsorship.”

You start by picking someone. And you don’t just go through the company directory and send an email that says “Hi. My name is Elizabeth. Will you be my sponsor?”

Hemming says you begin by “asking yourself who in my company organization do I want to impress and have a relationship with? You might not be working for the person who will become your sponsor and you may never work for that person but how do you increase your engagement with that person? That might require a game plan. That might require asking ‘What’s their pet project?’ or ‘What’s important to them?’ Maybe they’re a philanthropist. Start building a path to create some relevance between you and that person.”

Most importantly, don’t go in with nothing to offer. “There has to be a mutually beneficial opportunity for both sides,” says Hemming. “That’s when these types of relationships work best. You have to be thinking ‘what can I be bringing to the table for this person?’

“What can you give when you’re young and working your way up? Maybe you’re great at social media and the guy you want to work with isn’t. Maybe he needs help.”

Prove yourself worthy of being taken along for the ride. They key: you do this by giving rather than taking. Not only does this make you likable, but as Robert Cialdini notes in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, the smallest favour evokes in most people a disproportionate feeling of indebtedness. Do things for others and they will do things for you.

Then you can start climbing the ladder.

3 Responses to “The strategy most people overlook? Landing a career sponsor”

  1. Is there a reason why every article on here is written by women? Kind of one-sided, no? Perhaps you should get a couple of men to also voice opinions? Just a thought. Another thought: I don’t blame anyone for not going into a room alone with a young woman, right now. So litigious is the environment that any guy high up SHOULD be worried about sponsoring a young woman. Advances also come with steps backward. See? And work on getting some male writers!

    However, in communications women outnumber men about 80 to 20, don’t they? Now, there’s an angle!

  2. ROBERT says:

    Shall I sponsor, or shall I not??? The question is not without its Hazards on either side. If a man takes a woman, of any age, under his wing and offers to be her sponsor to advancement in her career, several questions automatically come forth from both male and female counterparts.

    I am a “Corporate Trainer” and have been in this business for over thirty years. As a trainer I have witnessed some tactics by women in the workplace that in my opinion have caused them to loose the respect of other workers. I personally have no problem in sponsoring females for advancement, but my question is, “Why aren’t more women in high places of management helping to sponsor other women?”

    Sponsorship, of either a male or female candidate, carries with it many pitfalls for the sponsor. The candidate can be great or not so great once they have been advanced in their profession, and the sponsor gets tagged with the good or bad!!

    Everyone has someone in their corner in the corporate entity. Sometimes we are aware of who they are, and sometimes not! Male or female, it’s the individual that can make it or break it for themselves and those that follow!

  3. Of course, it’s so simple! Connections, connections, connections. Just as important as location when buying a house or doing a feasibility study for a new business. Why haven’t I tried this yet?

    It’s one thing to have good references (awesome rapports with previous managers can do wonders in that department), but to have someone to vouch for you at the place your trying to get into is a big bonus. On the one hand, I find it kind of creepy that my account manager at RBC knows my grandma… But it’s good to know that if I were to decide to leave my Night Audit job at the hotel and return to day-light hours at a bank, that I might be able to count on him to help me make that transition. And that would go with or without the Y-Chromosomes.

    As for Jen’s comment, I can’t tell whether she’s For or Against sponsorship. But it seems like she’s missing the point of this article, and calling guys out on being bad communicators. Either that, or I’m just proving her point and not fully grasping what it she’s trying to say. Who cares about male writers? I’ll take free career advice, so-long as it is reputable, no matter who writes it.


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