By Christine Silva (Director of Research, Catalyst) By now, you probably know how important it is to have a mentor -- someone who provides career advice and suggestions. Indeed, recent Catalyst research shows that women were actually more likely than men to have mentors -— so we’ve got that message loud and clear. What not everyone realizes, though, is that a sponsor -— someone who is senior in your organization, has clout at the decision-making table, and actively advocates on your behalf when it comes to promotions or development opportunities —- is critical to getting ahead.
In no way do I mean you should give up on mentors. Your mentors might be senior or junior, your superiors, colleagues, friends, or family, and they may offer advice, provide direction, serve as a sounding board, help you navigate unwritten rules in your organization, or act as role models. While they are certainly helpful to your personal and professional development, their help may not ultimately translate into high profile opportunities or promotions if no one has your back at the decision-making table.
As one participant in a Catalyst study noted in “Mad Men”-esque terms:
The most powerful thing a woman can do is have a male champion who is in the club, sits there smoking a cigar and says, “You know that girl, she’s the one.”
In short, you need a sponsor. But how do you find one?
First and foremost, be excellent at what you do. Build your skills, take on new challenges, and keep track of your successes. I live in Toronto and recently stumbled upon #ladieslearningcode, a group teaching women that “learning to hack can be fun.” What a brilliant way to learn new skills or try your hand at teaching others!
Then, help people see why they should sponsor you. Make sure people know you’re excellent. Whether you join networks or formal mentoring programs, find opportunities to connect with senior-level people to share your accomplishments. This can be hard for many women. Catalyst often hears women say that they’ve put their head down and worked hard, with the presumption that work would get them ahead. A few years later, with no promotions, they’ve realized just how necessary networking and self-promotion really are. To fast-track your career, you need to get over the discomfort you feel “tooting your own horn.” Sponsors may put their reputations on the line by recommending you —- it’s up to you to help them feel confident doing so.
Finally, let people know what you want to do next. When you have a chance to connect with senior leaders —- potential sponsors -— be sure to communicate your contributions, skills, interests, and career goals so they know what they should be sponsoring you for. If you have access to a formal sponsorship or leadership development program, seek out ways to participate. In many companies, though, sponsorship still happens informally, behind closed doors. In those situations, it’s largely up to you to manage your career -— so take charge!
Editor's note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below. About the guest blogger: Christine Silva directs and supports Canadian and global research projects focused on gender and diversity issues and is a co-author of Catalyst’s longitudinal study of high-potential employees. She played a lead role in the groundbreaking study, Career Advancement in Corporate Canada: A Focus on Visible Minorities, and directed and co-authored the qualitative report in that series that explored critical relationships.