For years, mentoring has been how many companies and professional associations have hoped to close the leadership gender gap, in which women barely achieve 20% of the C-suite slots and a smaller percentage at the board level despite being half the entry-level workforce. Every leader points to mentors along the way as key to their success, so this focus on mentoring for women makes sense — or does it?
Research now tells us that while women are mentored more than men, they don’t get promoted as much, or see as many salary increases, because of it. It turns out that while mentors do help us learn to be more effective, it’s often “sponsors” who actually help us get hired at the next pay grade.
So what’s the difference between a mentor and a sponsor?
Mentors give us advice, counsel and strategies to take on what we haven’t learned yet. Mentors can learn from us, too. Mentorship is a coaching and support relationship. Sponsors, by contrast, go to bat for us, put our name in the hat for new assignments and — this is the important part — have some of their own personal brand equity and credibility riding on our success. They ask others to believe in us. Mentors can also be sponsors, but they’re not the same.
While mentorship is an explicit and usually personal relationship, not everyone knows who sponsored them behind the scenes. You don’t always have close personal relationships with sponsors like you do with mentors. Quite often, they know you through results, performance and presentations. They like the cut of your jib, believe when you’re successful you’ll be a good ally for them and — frankly — they’ll look good for believing in you early on.
So how do you get a sponsor?
First of all you don’t “get” a sponsor; you “earn” a sponsor. You have to do good work and make sure people who can sponsor you know about it. I believe this is one of the primary reasons women are not sponsored as often as men, because women too often struggle to take credit for their success. But there is more to attracting the attention of a sponsor than just doing your job, you need to stand out among your peers in other ways, too.
Here are three key career strategies you can use to get the attention of a sponsor.
- Do “hard.” Take on the big challenges and succeed.
- Own your success. Talk about your wins so people know what to give you credit for.
- Take a stand. Promote a big idea that can move the business forward and learn how not to back down when you stimulate a vigorous debate.
All three of these strategies will get the attention of potential sponsors, but the latter one — taking a stand — will attract true allies who think like you do and respect you even if they don’t. This is a way to leverage thought leadership — traditionally reserved for external public relations efforts — to boost your career within the organization. In this age of social media, it’s never been easier to become a thought leader and capture the attention of sponsors internally and externally.
Want to develop your own thought leadership strategy? Join me for a complimentary webinar on how to use thought leadership to help you get to the next level.
Dana Theus is president and CEO of InPower Consulting, reframing leadership to help high-achieving women (and men) find their voice and create change. Follow her also at InPowerWomen.com, InPowerCoaching.com, Twitter (@DanaTheus) and on LinkedIn.