Q&A - Exploring How Sponsorship Can Propel Career Success

Written by EO Executives on Mar 06, 2017

I recently spoke with Essie Russell Butler, an innovative talent acquisition leader with strategic level exposure within the world's largest businesses including EMC, Diageo and Microsoft. Consulting with clients across Europe on the creation and implementation of bespoke, effective Diversity & Inclusion strategies to improve business performance. Essie offers deep expertise in the augmentation of the resourcing function to support businesses in hiring a more diverse and inclusive workforce. 

We all know how important mentoring is to career success. Yet having a sponsor is even more critical to advancement in the workplace.

A sponsor is an ally in your current company who will advocate for you at the decision-making table when it comes to staffing large, highly visible projects, promotions, and who has the power to effect change. While mentors may be seen as career developers, sponsors are considered to be career accelerators.

Think of a sponsor as your workplace champion. They can offer visibility, help to remove barriers and vouch for you when the doors are closed in the decision-making room. Yet our research also reveals that women are over-mentored and under-sponsored.

It's often not who you know, but who knows you. Sponsors tend to find their protégés directly. This will usually happen organically through work projects, recommendations, and informal networking.

What exactly is a sponsor and how do they differ from mentors? How then do you increase your visibility? Keep in mind that sponsors are naturally selective about who they will take under their wing and advocate for. A sponsor will only champion people who are performing at the highest level and who they are confident will continue to perform at that level.

Having experienced the significance of sponsors in her own career, Essie was keen to share with me her knowledge and experience.

Essie, what’s the connection between sponsorship and career success?

Over the last few years there has been much research into why women are not achieving the leadership roles they aspire towards. The reasons are manifold but one under-acknowledged aspect is that women, whilst over mentored, are still under-sponsored in the workforce. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the author of (Forget a Mentor) Find a Sponsor, and CEO of the Centre for Talent Innovation who conducted a 2-year study on this topic found that “85% of mothers employed full time who have sponsors stay in the game, compared to only 58% of those who go it alone, equating to a sponsor effect of 27%.”. She says “It’s OK to lean in, but you need someone else with power to lean in with you” to propel your career forward.

So, what is the difference between mentorship and sponsorship?

Mentors are supporters who are role models, sponsors are also role models but the sponsor differs in that they believe in your ability and your potential. They are prepared to link their reputation with yours and advocate for you when the chips are down. A mentor may be there to offer support and guidance on topics that you would not necessarily want to share with your boss or other superiors however a sponsor is an influencer in decision making circles and is willing to be your champion. They will convince others you deserve a pay raise or a promotion. Lastly, a sponsor will also give you air cover so that you can take on risks, stretch projects or assignments or will provide the opportunity to make it safe for you to fail. As defined in the Financial Times, a sponsor is “someone two rungs up the corporate ladder who advocates a person’s promotion”.

How do you know who your sponsors are?

As Louise Pentland, PSV, General Counsel and company secretary at Paypal writes “you won’t always know who your sponsors are. The totality of your legacy relates to your perceived success in a corporation, so you should actively make an effort to build relationships and prove your value-add”. Sometimes, you will hear that someone has spoken highly of you in a meeting or that someone has recommended you for a role. This may be either unsurprising or surprising but the chances are this is a sponsor-type relationship that can be further invested in and leveraged.

Why is it that men appear to naturally gain sponsorship but some women struggle?

This is an interesting question and I believe it is closely linked to the fact that when influencers seek protégés they home in on those who look and feel very similar to themselves. Much has been made of how women’s talents and strengths at work show up very differently to those who are already in decision making leadership roles. Sponsoring someone who shows up as different is a risk, which could be a reason why both minorities and women struggle to get the unconscious sponsorship that their male counterparts achieve.

I see this all the time with hiring decisions too, hiring someone who looks different to how success has been defined already in a role constitutes a business risk that it would take any leader a significant leap of faith to take. It can also be the case that a women’s career can be advanced significantly by one sponsor, however if that sponsor leaves an organisation then they are left vulnerable. This in part may explain why women in senior roles can often turn over in organisations often at a faster rate than men. Men tend to have several sponsors so the departure of one key influencer may dent in the short term but is less likely to have lasting impact. So, gaining multiple sponsors is a fundamental part of shoring up your career planning.

Also, I think awareness of this has been scant to date. Sheryl Sandberg’s book, leans in and touches on this, but does not make the point about just how much careers can stall without the right sponsorship in place and without the right people advocating on your behalf. I am surprised that in big corporations, despite a multitude of development programs, mentorship, leadership development and employee resource groups provided for employees, I am yet to see offerings specifically targeting how women could and should be building a sponsorship base. It is this gap in the market that ERB addresses with its targeted workshops.

What have sponsors meant to your own career advancement?

In short, everything! I’ve had times in my career where I haven’t courted the right sponsors and the results were that I was far from being the first person in line for advancement opportunities. However, once I figured out how powerful the advocacy of sponsors, not only was my career development enhanced, but also it felt safer and more fun, knowing that I had people in the ring with me willing to fight battles on my behalf when required.

Personally, I have found that over-delivering against my agenda counted for keeping me in role but did not help me attain the next level. Instead, proactively seeking sponsors was key. I spent time figuring out what leaders cared about most and where they felt most anxious about and tried to remove that pressure. If it was about not finding the right talent in the market, then I would propose innovative solutions for this. Caring about what was on their mind and offering thought leadership counted for a lot. Taking a step back from the day job and trying to see the bigger picture about the direction the business is going in and offering unique insights paid dividends. Same goes for when I have chosen to sponsor others, it has broadly been because they consistently not only delivered but have actively come forward with ideas and contributions that made the business better.

So, what can women do to gain more sponsorship and advance at work?

To gain sponsorship you have to develop a reputation for delivering excellence for your sponsor and making them great. Demonstrating loyalty also goes a long way for a leader to continue sponsoring you in the long term. Understand that the sponsor/being sponsored relationship is a two-way street, they are attaching their brand to yours, so your personal brand is therefore important and worth investing in.

In my opinion, many women are already doing great work, so the investments made in having mentors are far from wasted. Mentors have been amazingly successful at making women better connected and more effective in the workplace. However, women often tend to shy away from showcasing their successes. It means proactively seeking to weave why what they have delivered fits into the agendas of key influencers and giving them the tools to utilise your work to further promote their own brand. It means making sure others know about what benefits your work has brought to the organisation.

Also, I believe men should be more encouraged to sponsor women. As Rapke Hofman writes for Forbes: “there are not enough senior women to sponsor other women looking to advance their careers and the few who have made it to the top already have their hands full”. I believe the power in harnessing senior level men to champion the cause of women into leadership roles is an avenue of support which today is severely under-valued and under invested in.

Practically speaking what does this mean in terms of working differently?

Understanding how your organisation works and who the decision makers are. If you are not sure, then this is an obvious first step. Find out who influences hiring decisions for your next move. If they don’t know you at all then this is where you should be spending your time. Learn how to navigate the organisation. Understanding how things get done and who holds the decision-making power is key to advancing.

Increasing your visibility within the organisation. This also helps not only with your next move but for potential moves you may not have considered. This is how you may end up being tapped on the shoulder for an opportunity that you had not thought of. This does not just mean pleasing the immediate upwards chain of command, rather it means seeking skip level meetings, asking questions at round-tables or town hall style meetings and It means reaching out to key influencers to volunteer for projects, or requesting leadership development as this can often give exposure to decision makers who would otherwise not know you.

To build your brand further, consider speaking at industry conferences, be a panelist or moderator or contribute to online industry discussions. I see many successful women supplement their leadership careers internally by taking an active leadership role outside of the workplace in the local community through joining boards of not-for-profit organisations or community groups. Proving your leadership capability outside of the workplace can translate into confidence to lead within the workplace. Lastly, if an organisation is not seeing your true value, don’t wait around, moving companies can often be the key to unlocking a new network and a new set of sponsors who can catapult your career to the place you want deserve it to be.

If you'd like to discuss this further or engage with Essie, please do not hesitate to get in contact directly at lucy.bielby@eoexecutives.com or alternatively comment below. 

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