Creidt: World Economic Forum

Ambitious women need sponsors as well as mentors

Advice is useful but a hand up can make all the difference.

by Fiona Czerniawska and Sandra Guzman
Last Updated: 05 Oct 2015

More women are scaling the corporate ladder, but only slowly - they make up 12.6% of FTSE 100 executive directors and just 6% of chief execs. A helping hand from someone who has been there, done that, can be a big boost for anyone looking to advance their career - but what form should that take? There’s been a slew of recent research highlighting the difference between mentors and sponsors. These approaches complement each other – but often at different stages in a woman’s career.

Mentors offer advice, act as a sounding board, and sometimes even provide a shoulder to cry on. It’s an inherently introspective process: mentors focus on helping the individuals they work with build on their strengths and manage their weaknesses. Mentors are most useful when people are starting out on their career; they help people prepare for the future. Good mentors are able to give open, honest and objective feedback, an ability to see things from the perspective of the person being mentored, and to empathise. The best are guides, someone you can turn to - more a friend than a colleague.

Sponsors are different. Their role is far more outward facing, helping to promote individuals in the widest sense: introducing them to senior people, recommending them where appropriate, helping them broaden their support networks. Sponsors don’t try to change who people are, but give them advice about what they should do. They’re proactive while mentors are reactive; they intervene, not simply observe.

And sponsors turn out to be crucial, especially for people who are moving into, or through, senior management. Take Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Would she have got so far without the help of Larry Summers, who taught her at Harvard before employing her at the World Bank and later at the U.S. Treasury?

We recently interviewed senior women from the world’s leading management consultancies in order to understand the factors that helped or hindered their ability to become partners. Eight out of ten had had access to a mentor at an early stage of their career. While this had proved very helpful, it wasn’t enough when it came to promotion to partner.

Reluctant to put themselves forward, too busy with their families to have the time to schmooze, many women need people who’ll help pave the way. They also need support from people who understand the rules of the game at senior management levels. As one senior female partner put it, 'I think women can really just work hard but get nowhere unless they have somebody who gives them broader chances and opens up new opportunities.'

Good sponsors are people who are respected internally with a network of strong relationships they can leverage. They have the ability to make concrete suggestions about what to do, who to get to know, how to put yourself forward. They’re present at critical meetings and speak up in support of the person they’re sponsoring.

But they’ve also got to trust the person they are sponsoring, and know them well, as they are effectively putting their personal reputation on the line. This can mean they’re hard to find: indeed, while mentors are usually appointed by HR departments, sponsors tend to appoint themselves. Sponsors know good people when they see them, and also selfishly know that it’s in their own interest to make sure high calibre people succeed. You don’t call a sponsor: they call you.

Only around a third of our partner interviewees benefited from having a sponsor, but those that did were very clear about the impact it had: 'My sponsor was absolutely critical, though I didn’t realise it at the time. He used to take me along for lunches, introduce me to people, I just thought he was "feeding me". He gave me a lot of exposure.'

Mentors are important and every candidate for promotion, male or female, deserves one. But sponsors are special and can make a huge difference, especially if you’re a woman. Next time you’re up for promotion, ask yourself which you need.

Fiona Czerniawska is the founder of Source Information Services and Sandra Guzman is a director at nbi, an international human capital consultancy.

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