Behind Every Great Woman is an Advocate

Hard work and long(er) hours alone won’t get you there. Sponsors are crucial if you want to move up the ladder.

You are one of the majority of women graduating from college and graduate schools, and you know that women comprise more than half the workforce and make more than 80 percent of household buying decisions. You’ve landed a good job and your hard work has led to some recognition and added responsibilities, but your upward trajectory has stalled. You want to lead and your goal is to make it all the way to the top. If you think that even longer hours and more hard work is the path to leadership, you’re in good company – but you’d be wrong.

Many say women are achieving parity and the CEO of Coca Cola says this century should go to women, yet still, few women have made it to the upper echelons of management. Theories for the dearth of women at the top range from a lack of ambition, to the interference of family obligations to gender bias.

Two recent studies (The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling, by the Center for Work-Life Policy and Catalyst’s Sponsoring Women to Success) claim that hard work alone won’t get you to the top, but who you know will. Catalyst reports that 77 percent of women believe that hard work and long hours alone will pay off, but most men know better. Sponsorship is crucial for both men and women to move into leadership positions, but it is especially important for women, and they are the ones who receive it the least.

Sponsors vs. Mentors

Many women have mentors, but while mentors are a valuable part of navigating the workplace landscape, a mentor’s role is usually that of a passive advice-giver. A sponsor takes an active role in your career. According to the Catalyst report, a sponsor’s role is predicated on power. A highly placed sponsor champions you in leadership meetings that you can’t attend, recommends you for high-profile assignments and highlights your accomplishments to the other leaders in your organization.

Many times it’s women themselves who sabotage their own advancement by a lack of assertiveness or inability to negotiate for themselves. Women actually learn at an early age not to champion themselves. Having someone else endorse a woman applicant lends them credibility and makes a much bigger statement than if the woman does it herself. It happens all the time in politics, but isn’t as formal in business.

Everyone Who Enjoys Success Gets a Helping Hand From Someone

Sheryl Sandberg’s excellence in her economics class at Harvard caught the attention of her professor, Larry Summers. When Summers became U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, he appointed her as his chief of staff. From there, her career only rocketed upward to Google and finally to COO of Facebook. Mika Brzezinski’s Morning Joe co-host, Joe Scarborough, went to bat for her at NBC over the disparity in their salaries (he was making fourteen times what she was), even paying her out of his own compensation until they finally offered her a better contract.

Colleen Plimpton, a garden columnist, described how another garden writer, Lorraine Ballato, took an interest in her career. Ballato opened up her personal contact list to Plimpton in order for her to contact people who might hire her as a speaker or writer, and gave her the names of garden radio show hosts who had interviewed her and might interview Plimpton. Ballato even went the extra mile and drove Plimpton to trade shows, and demonstrated how to sell a book and create an effective presentation. “Every time I get to a sticky wicket in my career, I have but to ask Lorraine, and she comes through for me,” Plimpton said.

When Susan Bender Phelps switched careers to marketing, the first company she called granted her an interview. After that initial meeting, they asked her to come back in a week and pitch them on how she would market their company. Phelps had no idea how to go about pitching a plan, so she called her friend Bob, who had volunteered at her former organization. Bob opened up his own firm’s marketing plans to her, taught her what comprised a successful proposal and discussed local market conditions and the roles of different well-known players.

Bob then introduced her to his colleague Tina, who took Phelps to a two-hour lunch and briefed her on the personalities of all the members of the firm where she would be pitching. Both she and Bob offered to be references for Phelps. Phelps got that job and went on to do marketing for several engineering firms. In three years, she helped them bring in more than fifty million dollars in construction projects, and more than 130 employees kept their jobs and saw their careers grow. “Bob and Tina remained friends and resources over the following five years. They continuously shared their networks with me, and introduced me to people and organizations that could help me,” Phelps said.

Workplace Fairy Godmothers

So where can you find such a person that will take hours out of his or her own schedule to help you in your career? Good question. Unfortunately, sponsors are hard to come by these days. A tough job market and the current competitive work climate we’re presently in doesn’t help, although sponsorships are valuable relationships for organizations. Companies who rely on an existing, overworked workforce are making the problem worse.

Mean boys and girls make more money, but it’s a short-sighted tactic. Networking and building relationships is extremely important. If you step on the wrong person in your haste to climb the ladder, that just might be the person who later becomes an important client or works at a company you want to move to. Burning bridges can have consequences.

Let’s be clear – It’s a Partnership

Sponsors put their own reputations on the line when vouching for sponsorees, but the payoff can also be significant. Sponsors put a large amount of trust in the people they help and recommend, so it’s imperative that if you are fortunate enough to be sponsored, you reciprocate by living up to that faith and working hard. However, sponsors also gain insight into the organization and look good by recognizing and promoting talented individuals, and many report feeling good about helping other employees achieve their goals. Retaining workers is becoming more and more important, especially if the economy ever bounces back and employees feel more empowered to switch jobs. Employees who had sponsors reported feeling supported and valued,  and stayed with their companies longer.

Generosity and Diversity Required

While women and men can move up on the lower rungs of the ladder, the higher level jobs are fewer and farther between, so having someone champion you for these positions helps you have an edge. The reason that men have had this advantage until now, is that men tended to sponsor other men like themselves, and with many more men in power sponsoring men, women were at a disadvantage. Several companies like American Express, Cisco, Citi, Deloitte, and Time Warner are putting formal sponsorship programs in place, and for many the first criteria is: you must sponsor someone different from you (whether by gender or race or both).

Many sponsors in the Catalyst study said that they unconsciously gravitated toward sponsoring people like themselves, but when it became a mandate to start looking at other employees with fresh eyes, they discovered a lot about colleagues they had never been in contact with before.

Previously men in power were (understandably) leery of sponsoring a younger woman inside their organization for fear of being accused of a sexual relationship. And, in some cases, women who fought their way up aren’t as willing to help other women advance, especially past their own position. Since there is such a shortage of top spots awarded to women, there can be a feeling that there isn’t enough to go around. But with the rise of women’s business groups and networking, that feeling is subsiding. Women who worked hard to climb the ladder certainly can be an infinite help to other women on their way up, but the key is for more men to advocate for women to move into higher positions.

Repeated studies have shown that having multiple women on corporate boards and in leadership positions result in a better financial performance for organizations. And to get women, women of color, and minorities into leadership positions requires sponsors and advocates who have already walked the challenging road.

image: Alvaro Canivell, mnsc, lumaxart, BinaryApe, vokakvklim and Nicholas_T via Flickr cc (some rights reserved)

Andrea Newell

Andrea Newell is a Michigan-based writer specializing in corporate social responsibility, women’s issues, and the environment.