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Trying to Get Ahead in Your Career? Having A Guide Can Help

Having a mentor and/or a sponsor can make all the difference in your career

mentor“You tell your mentor everything—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and they repeat nothing. You tell your sponsor only the good—the things you want repeated.”
–Rosalie Mandel, principal, Rothstein Kass

There is increasing controversy in the business community about the differences between mentorship and sponsorship—or if there really are substantive differences. “There is nothing new about taking a protégé under your wings because management sees a potential that can be developed,” says Vicki Donlan, author ofHer Turn: Why It’s Time for Women to Lead In America. Donlan notes that for decades, men in particular have been recruited into unofficial mentoring programs to be groomed for positions that were chosen for them. What’s new, according to Donlan, is how we now talk about mentorship.

“Now that women are 50 percent of the workforce, yet the top of the workforce remains predominately male, the language of mentorship (sponsorship) has changed,” she says. “Individuals may be evaluated similarly to the past, but when a female fits the profile for development, the rules have changed at many companies.”

Donlan emphasizes that grooming for management positions is still critical; however, since both genders are now interchangeable for the roles, the rules are no longer the same. “How to mentor the recruit for the position has taken on a multi-faceted program—should we sponsor him or her, or mentor?” says Donlan. “This is the question in front of 21st century companies, yet the answer really hasn’t changed that much.”

Career coach Shannon Kelley agrees that the qualities of the person you find to support you should be more important than the term used to describe your supporter. “Whatever the label, what’s important is the relationship,” says Kelley, author of Undecided: How to Ditch the Endless Quest for Perfect and Find the Career—and Life—That’s Right For You. She suggests that women seek someone who’s willing to be an advocate and who has an eye to the larger picture: the future and the legacy she’ll leave. “The most important thing to look for from the person who will fill this role for you is a vision: inspiration, a long view, perspective, and generosity of spirit,” says Kelley.

The Difference between a Mentor and a Sponsor

Yet as the quote at the start of this article reveals, others support the idea that mentorship and sponsorship represent more than just a language change, and in fact fulfill very different roles. In her book Knowing Your Value, author Mika Brzezinski describes a mentor as someone who will offer advice, provide feedback, suggest strategy, and explain company culture. A sponsor, on the other hand, she describes as someone who is willing to use his or her own social capital to help pull someone else up the corporate ladder.

Brzezinski notes that although many companies invest substantial sums in mentorship programs, mentoring doesn’t necessarily result in better jobs for women. Catalyst’s research finds that “high-potential women are overmentored and undersponsored relative to their male peers—and that they are not advancing in their organizations.”

“Women can be mentored so much that it wastes their time,” Brzezinski writes in her book. “Sponsorship is more than mentorship. Sponsors…will do more by using their connections and their influence to advocate for an employee.” A seminal article on this topic in Harvard Business Review called “Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women” sheds more light on this subject. The article notes that while research shows women are as likely as men to receive mentoring, mentoring does not provide the same career benefits to women as to men in terms of income and promotion into management positions.

The reason for this distinction, according to the HBR article, boils down to mentorship and sponsorship: while women generally have traditional mentors, men have sponsors. These sponsors go beyond giving feedback and advice, and use their influence with senior-level executives to advocate for their mentee’s career advancement. The sponsors help open doors to the top level for their mentee rather than just pointing out where the doors are and explaining how to open them.

Whether you agree that there are important distinctions between mentors and sponsors or see the terms as more interchangeable, what everyone does seem to agree on is that it’s important for women to have advocates to help with career advancement. Ideally, these advocates will go beyond simply offering advice and will help to pull you up the ladder using their own network and influence in the company and industry.

But how do you go about identifying possible mentors or sponsors, and what are effective and appropriate ways to get one to work with you? career-intelligence.com asked a number of workplace experts for their best-practice strategies on mentorship and sponsorship, and here are some of their top recommendations:

Focus on Earning, Not Finding

Dani Ticktin Koplik created a mentor training program that she road-tested at Brown University. She notes that while a mentor is often assigned as part of a larger program, a sponsor is a “different animal” that requires a custom approach to obtain. “Focusing on finding a sponsor is the wrong way to look at it,” Koplik says. “Sponsors risk political capital when they take someone on, so women and men should focus onearning a sponsor.”

To earn an opportunity, she recommends thinking about what your potential sponsor would want to see in a prospective candidate for sponsorship. “From the sponsor’s point of view, I’d be looking for someone who is a strong performer, who has developed a consistent personal brand, who shows up with professional presence, and who just needs a bit of a boost to get on high-level radar,” says Koplik.

Evaluate Your Goals

Business coach Lara Galloway suggests that the best way to connect with potential mentors or sponsors is to first evaluate your own priorities and goals. Some questions to ask yourself include: What exactly are you seeking? What outcome are you expecting? What do you want to learn? How do you envision the relationship with your mentor or sponsor—formal or informal, meeting in person or via text/email/phone, a short-term or long-term relationship?

“Be prepared to ask for what you want, but be flexible and willing to hear the mentor/sponsor’s ideas,” says Galloway. “By knowing what you want and being able to clearly articulate that with your potential sponsor or mentor, you’ve got a much better chance at finding the right match.”

Take the Lead

Whether it’s a mentor or sponsor you seek, you should take an active role in trying to secure one, according to Stephanie Rogen, vice president of corporate leadership programs at The White House Project. Though sometimes mentors or sponsors will go out of their way to identify you, Rogen emphasizes that it’s a rare and lucky event when that happens—particularly when it comes to sponsorship.

“Many men and women are happy to sponsor, but unless they know you want them to help and know what you want to achieve, it is difficult for them to be proactive and intentional on your behalf,” says Rogen. She recommends that women take a look at their organization and make a short list of people who are well respected and engaged in strategic areas of interest.

“Make finding and engaging a sponsor a key element of your career strategy, and be thoughtful about how to cultivate the relationship in ways that benefit both of you,” says Rogen. Some specific ways to do this include getting coached in how to self-advocate, and how to clearly ask for what you want. “As women become more confident in demonstrating these abilities, they demonstrate clear leadership competencies to their sponsor,” says Rogen.

Stay Open

What about women who work in smaller companies, or who are self-employed—are mentors and sponsors options for them as well? Kathleen Mullens, founder and CEO of Female Equality Matters, affirms that potential mentors and sponsors may be found at all sizes and types of organizations. “You could have a small company with many and a large organization with none,” says Mullens.

Mullens also points out that there may be options to explore outside of your own company. “If you cannot find a sponsor within your organization, your best bet is in industry groups that your leaders travel in,” says Mullens. Independent workers don’t have to be left in the cold when it comes to seeking advocacy either, according to Marla Gottschalk of Gottschalk and Associates, LLC. “You can still have a sponsor if you are an independent worker,” says Gottschalk. “Try to find a sponsor within a professional organization that you are affiliated.”

Do the Work

Career coach Janine Moon notes that women have to overcome a number of challenges to position themselves to work with a mentor or sponsor. One of the top obstacles that Moon identifies for women is self-sabotage based on outdated beliefs and expectations about mentors and sponsors; for example, believing that if no one picks them to mentor, then they must not be worth mentoring.

To overcome this mindset, Moon recommends taking action by showing how what you’re doing aligns with business strategies, values, and growth. “It’s about finding and creating opportunities to step beyond job boundaries, showing initiative and business savvy,” says Moon. “Women must ‘cowgirl up’ to the challenge of their ongoing professional growth: they must get out of their own way and take the first steps to lifelong responsibility for career satisfaction. There’s no shortcut.”

Have Both

There’s no need to choose between having a mentor or having a sponsor. Many of our experts suggest the importance of developing both mentor and sponsor relationships if possible. “Have both!” says Rogen. “Mentors teach and provide a safe forum for seeking advice and guidance. Sponsors make things happen. One may be more useful than the other at different points in your career, but the bottom line is that you need both.”

Rogen emphasizes that the important thing is to make sure you understand who in your organization exerts influence or makes key decisions about how talent is developed and deployed: “Look for both mentors and sponsors in or out of your organization who are ready to help you advance, wherever the opportunities are richest.”

About Robin Madell

Robin Madell has spent over two decades as a corporate writer, journalist, and communications consultant on business, leadership, career, health, finance, technology, and public-interest issues. She is a contributing writer to U.S. News & World Report and serves as a copywriter, speechwriter, and ghostwriter for executives and entrepreneurs across diverse industries. She has served on the Board of Directors of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association in New York and San Francisco. Robin is the author of Surviving Your Thirties: Americans Talk About Life After 30 and co-author of The Strong Principles: Career Success.


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