“I’m sending you to the conference in Atlanta… as a presenter.” Seeing the panic on my face, my mentor Jane continued, “You’re ready. And it’s time you got a little exposure for the training you’ve created.” I was a few years in on my career journey, and Jane was my first mentor. I have never forgotten what she did for me, and how her support shaped my career path. Oprah has described a mentor as "someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself.” That was certainly true of Jane for me, and of the many mentors and sponsors I’ve had since. When you listen to people describe their mentoring relationships, you'll notice that everyone’s experience and approach is slightly different. I’ve had people describe relationships ranging from formal to informal, from full-on sponsorship, to having multiple subject matter expert mentors, to a peer-mentoring network.
I don’t know about you, but the idea that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to mentorship was a huge relief to me. The idea of having an end-all be-all mentor was daunting. I envisioned some old, white guy looking over the top of his glasses at me asking what my burning career questions were. Yikes! Finding someone like that to mentor me didn’t seem at all feasible, let alone interesting.
Once I started to take a buffet style approach, picking and choosing the type of mentoring relationships I’ve needed over the course of my career, it took a lot of pressure off. I found myself engaging in more mentorship activities.
To be clear, not all of these relationships pack the same punch. There are stats that show women have as many mentors as men do. What we don’t have, and what is critical to our success, are sponsors.
Sponsors are mentors on steroids. They use their influence, open doors, actively advocate for you and let you draft off their success to build yours. And research show that men have 3-4 times more sponsors than women do. That’s a really big deal.
Research conducted by The Center for Work-Life Policy and written up in Harvard Business Review highlights the importance of the ‘sponsorship effect’. People with sponsors ask for and get more pay and stretch assignments and are far happier with their rate of advancement.
Having sponsors, then, is the secret sauce to moving in to leadership. So why do women have significantly fewer sponsors than men do? Three reasons:
1. Women think it’s cheating. Here’s what I have to say about that: get over yourself. If you try and do it all solo, you’re slowing down your growth and the potential impact you can have on the world. Get comfortable with the idea of having sponsors. It’s the way the game is played.
2. 'Like Me' Bias. Without realizing it, leaders tend to pick people who remind them of themselves when they were at an earlier stage in their careers when choosing who to sponsor. Since there are mostly white men in leadership, their "like me" bias causes them to sponsor other white men in a perpetual white male leadership-making machine.
3. The implication of an affair. Older men don’t want to sponsor younger women because they don’t want people thinking they are having an affair. Younger women don’t want to be sponsored by older men because they don’t want people thinking they’ve slept their way to the top. That makes sense.
The good news is that with a little conversation and education, all three of these barriers can quickly be overcome. Once everyone understands how important sponsors are and their role, as women and as leaders, in making them happen it’s fairly simple to change the dynamics. Go ahead — take the lead and start a conversation about sponsor relationships with your team and your boss. You’ll be helping everyone get on board with women having more sponsors.
It’s time to step up to the mentoring and sponsorship buffet and give your career a boost. In part two, we’ll explore how.
Mo is the Founder of The Moxie Exchange, a training and peer mentoring organization for companies who want to recruit, develop, promote and retain women and create inclusive workplaces. She’s an advisor to CEOs of the nation’s fastest growing companies and is the founder 5 successful businesses. She also been known to sing loudly, dance badly and curse like a sailor.