Why Every Ambitious Woman Needs A Sponsor

Johanna Harris

* Today’s post is from a guest blogger, Johanna Harris. *Johanna Harris has been a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor and in-house labor counsel for two multinational corporations. She is currently the CEO of Hire Fire and Retire LLC. Her new book is “USE PROTECTION: An Employee’s Guide to Advancement in the Workplace,” available as iBook, Kindle, and Amazon Paperback. For more information, go to http://hirefireandretire.com. Enjoy!

A Mentor is not a Sponsor

It is now widely acknowledged that a woman cannot succeed in the workplace without a mentor. Some companies, in fact, have set up formal mentoring programs for their employees, both male and female. There’s little doubt that women need mentors. Mentors can provide invaluable insights into the unwritten rules of a company. They can provide feedback, career guidance and support. They can be trusted advisors. But if you’re an ambitious woman and you want to get ahead, your mentor will not get you promoted to a senior position. For that, you need a sponsor.

A sponsor is very different from a mentor. A mentor plays an important but passive role in your career. He wishes you well. But if you fail, your failure rarely impacts his career. He may benefit from serving as your mentor, but his future is not on the line. By contrast, a sponsor stakes his reputation on you. He goes out on a limb to advocate for your advancement.  Your success is his success. Your failure is his failure.

A Sponsor Works at Multiple Levels

A sponsor works on multiple levels at different times. He makes sure that you receive the work assignments that are essential for entering the senior ranks. He uses his own status and connections to convince others of your stellar credentials and abilities. He removes barriers that stand in the way of your advancement. If there are naysayers who doubt your skills or your readiness to assume a senior role, he neutralizes their concerns. He makes sure that you network with the right people, and that you are visible to the key decision makers. He is your advocate and your champion.

Cultivating a Sponsor

It is not easy to attract a sponsor. You have to do a lot of groundwork first. You need to develop a stellar reputation as a hard worker, a reliable team player and a creative problem solver. You need to be excellent at your job. Once you’re comfortable that you’ve mastered these basic prerequisites of corporate success, you’ll need to look around and identify someone who could be your sponsor. Then you’ll need to cultivate him, and this will require time and effort. Your sponsor will need to know you and your work. He will need to feel comfortable with you. Otherwise, he will not take the risk that being a sponsor inevitably entails.

Two Barriers

Women face two barriers to cultivating sponsors that men usually do not need to confront. The first is that most sponsors are older men, while those most in need of sponsors are younger women. The mere fact of sponsorship can engender gossip, badmouthing and misconceptions about motives. To avoid such misconceptions, a woman has to work hard to be beyond reproach and, what’s more, appear beyond reproach. Discussions with your sponsor should be conducted in public places during work hours. All signs of familiarity or intimacy should be avoided.

The second barrier that many ambitious women face is internal. They have been raised to think that merit alone is enough to succeed, and that there is something unseemly about another person helping you to advance your career. They might think that cultivating a sponsor is taking unfair advantage of him, or that having the advantage of a sponsor means you’re not playing on a level field. These ideas are counterproductive. They are myths. It is a rare person, male or female, who advances to a senior job in the corporate world without having an advocate. There is nothing illegal or improper about having someone with power go to bat for you.

A Two-Way Street

A sponsor may have altruistic motives, but rarely does he advocate for a junior employee solely out of the goodness of his heart. Championing the career of someone else is extra work, and it’s risky. But a successful sponsorship can reward the sponsor as well. The sponsor develops a reputation as a manager who can spot and develop talent. He becomes known as someone who has made a contribution to the company beyond his narrow business interest. Once the sponsored employee successfully advances, she becomes an ally and a continuing source of intelligence about company matters outside the sponsor’s immediate business unit. She owes her sponsor her best efforts not only to advance her own career, but also to make her own meaningful contribution to the company. She owes him a demonstration that his judgment was correct and his faith in her abilities was not misplaced. Sponsorship is a two-way street.

Down the Road

The two-way street isn’t just one block long. Once a woman becomes a powerful senior executive, she will reach out and take the risk of sponsoring another junior woman. And if she chooses wisely, the two-way street becomes a highway.

Interested in writing a guest post for The Aristocracy of HR? Contact me here.

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