In today’s highly competitive working world, filled with talented, skilled and ambitious men and women, it’s not uncommon to hear about individuals who possess exceptional skills and qualifications but struggle to advance their careers. What sets those who soar to new heights apart from the rest?
Many would assume the answer is access to mentors and coaches, however, the real power lies in the often overlooked but immensely valuable concept of sponsorship.
Sponsorship is when senior executives or other influential individuals leverage their networks, resources and expertise to advocate for an individual’s advancement within the organization. Unlike mentors who provide guidance and support to an individual, sponsors actively champion the person they sponsor, opening doors and vouching for them.
Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organizational behaviour at London Business School, argues that while mentorship is important for career development, sponsorship is crucial for advancing to top leadership positions as a sponsor can provide opportunities for exposure, access to networks and visibility that may not be available through mentorship alone. She further highlights the value of sponsors who have the power to make decisions that directly affect an individual’s career trajectory.
Research from Centre of Talent Innovation shows that men are 46% more likely to have a sponsor than women across industries, while a study from the Harvard Business Review showed that 19% of men surveyed reported having a sponsor and only 13% of women. This is influenced by the similarity principle (i.e. people gravitate to people who are like or similar to them so men who hold executive positions are more likely to sponsor other men); unconscious gender bias and, as we know, women are not particularly comfortable at putting themselves and their accomplishments ‘out there’ to be on the radar screens for sponsorship.
Sponsorship is critical for reaching C-Suite positions and therefore, for women it should be a non-negotiable in their career-advancement toolbox.
In fact, Professor Ibarra advises women to proactively seek out sponsors and build relationships with influential people within their organisations.
So how exactly do we go about this?
In a recent IgniteHer masterclass on Sponsorship, the team shared their advice, which included
- Know what you want – take time to identify your strengths and development needs and clarify what you are working toward. Sponsors will respond more positively to helping you with a specific goal.
- Be strategic about whom you consider as a potential sponsor. Speak to your mentor about who could be a valuable sponsor and the best way to approach them.
- Build the relationship. Don’t expect someone to become your sponsor overnight. Instead, focus on cultivating genuine connections and demonstrating your value as a protégé. With patience and persistence, you’ll find the right fit for you.
- Maintain regular contact and nurture the relationship. For any sponsoring relationship to be successful, the sponsee must be a high achiever who delivers on the action plan that she develops with her sponsor.
By prioritising sponsorship and taking concrete steps to support women, organisations can create a more inclusive workplace where all employees have the opportunity to thrive. This not only benefits individual women but also contributes to the overall success of the organisation. Additionally, organisations can take steps to ensure that sponsorship is integrated into their culture by creating formal sponsorship programs, providing training for executives on how to be effective sponsors, and holding leaders accountable for sponsoring women.