A Sponsor is Someone Who:

Co-Opting the Old Boy’s Club

Ilene H. Lang, president and CEO of Catalyst, made a surprising statement in the Harvard Business Review:

“Catalyst has advised companies for decades on how to create women’s networks, mentorship programs, and other initiatives that boost women’s career advancement. These efforts make great talking points at conferences, but they have not dramatically changed the landscape for women in business leadership.”

Lang goes on to say that what women really need to do is to gain access to the Old Boys’ Club – that informal power center where many of the important business and personnel decisions are made. Lang writes:

“The Old Boys’ Club isn’t going away. For decades we’ve tried to dismantle it. Instead, simply be the best kind of leader—one who makes a difference: Co-opt the club so that it works for women.”

The Necessity of Sponsorship

According to Lang, sponsorship is the best way for women to break into the Old Boys’ Club. “High-potential women must be sponsored by C-suite executives, most of whom are men,” writes Lang. Women need sponsors who will fight for them by opening doors and guide them through the difficult ascent into an upper management position.

The Center for Work-Life Policy’s Report “The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling” puts forth a powerful call for the necessity of sponsorship:

“We’re convinced that promotion to top jobs depends on sponsorship – which women have a hard time accessing. If today’s female executives find themselves outside the inner sanctum, it’s not only because they’re removed from the crucial conversations that determine who moves up, but because they have no proxy. Sponsorship corrects that.”

Sponsorship Versus Mentorship

Though both sponsorship and mentorship are based on receiving career advice from someone senior, sponsorship is a much more public and long-term relationship. Sylvia Ann Hewlett writes, “Where a mentor might help you envision your next position, a sponsor will lever open that position for you. A sponsor doesn’t just believe in you; a sponsor believes in you more than you believe in yourself.”

How to Earn a Sponsorship

Exceptional performance, strong interpersonal skills, and ambition are the foundational necessities required to earn a senior-level sponsorship. But, that is not enough. The Center for Work-Life Policy’s Report states:

“Sponsor relationships happen for men more readily and easily, in a daily way—talking about sports, being on the golf course, having common things to bond over. Women don’t often have those opportunities with other men. But that doesn’t mean they need to read the sports column or hone their backswing, she says. Rather, women should think more consciously about whom to approach to help them. ‘You have to set your sights on the right person,’ she says. ‘Ask yourself, “Who do I have to get in front of to prove I’m worth their time, effort, and credit?’”

A sponsor will advocate for you, challenge you, expand your sense of what you can do, and put you in touch with those that will take you to the next level, but it is not a one-way street. A protegé must, in return, prove trustworthiness, total loyalty, commitment to the legacy of their sponsor, and, of course, pay forward the gift of sponsorship by taking a young executive under their own wing.

And, of course, make the Old Boys’ Club work for women too.

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