Career Success, Women in Leadership

Mentorship and Sponsorship: Why Both Are Crucial for Women’s Success

By EverwiseNovember 18, 2015

As the founder of both the Center for Talent Innovation and Hewlett Consulting Partners, Sylvia Ann Hewlett is often seen as the authority in talent management, particularly for professional women. And for good reason.

Despite a packed schedule filled with consulting, advising, research, and a slew of other responsibilities, Hewlett’s taken nearly an hour out of her day just to call me and help shed some light on the differences between sponsorship and mentorship. “I’ve had many great mentors in my life. The things mentorships give you are incredibly important to have.” She pauses for a moment. “Maybe you should always have a mentor as well as a sponsor.”

A few years ago, Hewlett led a groundbreaking study which picked apart workplace relationships and found one type that reached back to the dawn of civilization, but was rarely defined or discussed: Sponsorship.

Mentorship and sponsorship are often mixed up, the terms are used interchangeably, but they’re very different relationships, says Hewlett. “A mentor is someone willing to give you guidance,” she says. “Someone willing to provide a sounding board, someone you could go to if you are struggling.” A mentor can be anyone with experience and wisdom to share. They can be a boss, a peer, a friend. Mentors don’t have to work at a company you’d ever be interested in joining. 

Sponsorship, is about leaders tapping the shoulders of the next ambitious generation and grooming them for the top positions. Your sponsor doesn’t have to work at your current company, but a good sponsor will have connections in the places you want to go.

Although there is obviously some overlap, Hewlett says sponsors typically need four attributes:

  1. Your sponsor needs to be in a powerful enough position to be able to open doors for you.
  2. You need to respect them. Hewlett says, “You don’t need to be best buddies, you don’t have to feel this person is wonderful, but you do need to respect them. You need to feel that they’re good at what they do.”
  3. Your sponsor needs to believe in your value as a professional and be willing to go to bat for you, advocating for you in rooms where you aren’t present.
  4. Your sponsor also needs to have your back, so that you can take real risks. This is key. “The data tell us that women tend to be much more risk-averse than men,” says Hewlett. “But what we find is that this is not true. Women with sponsors take as many risks as men with sponsors, because if you have a powerful person backing you, you can risk falling flat on your face. There’s someone there to pick you back up.

But something is holding women back from getting these sponsorships, Hewlett says. “Though there are many very able women in the workforce and women have made a lot of progress in the lower and middle rungs, they’re not breaking through to the top,” she says. According to Hewlett’s research: Only 4% of CEOs are female, only 8% of top-earners are female, and only 16% of law partners are female.

To underscore the importance of sponsorship, Hewlett recounts the story of Larry Summers and Sheryl Sandberg. “He sponsored her like crazy when she was in her 20s. She delivered like crazy for him, in return, and he took her with him to the Treasury as his Chief of Staff. He opened doors for her in Silicon Valley too.” Then, Larry Summers was up for consideration as head of the Federal Reserve in 2013. Sandburg went to bat for her old sponsor, even breaking ranks with other female leaders who were lining up behind Janet Yellen. “And in a way she was then sponsoring him,” says Hewlett. This is a relationship that can have a huge, long-term impact on both your and your sponsor’s career. This isn’t a choice to make lightly.

Before we go on any further, it’s important to point out that as of yet, sponsorship is unfair. This relationship has a tendency to be a sort of “mini-me” situation, seldom crossing race and gender lines. That doesn’t mean that you’re bound to forever be without a sponsor if you’re not a white guy. “It’s a mistake to simply accept that as fact,” says Hewlett. “Most of the people at the top are white men, and you should pursue them as your sponsor.”

Simply by understanding the importance and the structure of a sponsorship, you can begin to leverage your networks to help you. “There are many more social networks between white men than between, say, white men than up-and-coming black women, for instance,” Hewlett says. It’s very common for leaders to gravitate towards high performers who are already connected to them in some way — whether it’s that they went to the same school, or grew up in the same area. We gravitate toward people we think are more like us, even if we know diversity in perspective and background offers more in the long run.

Still, it’s tempting to look around for someone who mirrors you — say a sponsor who’s also a woman of color, but you might find that strategy lacking. Hewlett’s found that it’s not uncommon for female sponsors, in particular, in these situations to be careful not to choose female protégés for fear it might look like they’re playing favorites and choosing gender over merit.

So, then, how do you go about snagging a sponsor?

“First off: performance, performance, performance,” Hewlett says. “This is a profoundly meritocratic system.” The person who sponsors you is tying their fate to yours, it’s a big compliment and a huge responsibility. In order to even attract a potential sponsor, you’re going to have to prove that you’re reliable, that you’re the kind of person who can deliver over and over again.

Once you identify who you want to be your sponsor, and you show them that you can deliver, you should come out and ask them to sponsor you, right? Wrong, says Hewlett. “That’s very rarely appropriate. You can’t just go ask for favors. You have to contribute value, you’re trying to elicit a kind of alliance.”

The best way to get a sponsor is to offer your sponsor help. This is reciprocal relationship and in order to get, you’re first going to have to give. You should be focused on how you can be more central to the success of your potential sponsor, not the other way around. You can still have a sort of official kick-off for the relationship, but couch it in an offer of assistance. A good sponsor-protégé relationship involves both parties helping each other. You should have skills or talents that your sponsor doesn’t, things that can benefit your sponsor’s career as he or she boosts your own.

When should I start looking for a sponsor?

Today. It’s never too early but it can easily become too late.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that your work speaks for itself. That success comes to she who writes the world’s best strategic plan or puts in the longest hours. That somehow someone will just suddenly notice you and give you the promotions you want. But that’s not how it works. “You need the performance, for sure,” Hewlett says. “But you have to have that advocacy too. Otherwise you will never stand out”.

Hewlett speaks from experience. “As a young woman I did not understand about sponsorship,” she says. “I mean, I was 27 when I acquired my first important mentor. Already at that point in my life I should have been exercising the muscles, building up relationships with powerful people in my field. You can’t just decide you need them at 45. You’ve got to build them before you need them.”

What does the average sponsorship look like?

Sponsorships generally last about six years and 30-40% of the time occur between a manager and direct subordinate. This isn’t terribly surprising given that your direct manager is the one most likely to be highly aware of your skills and work ethic. However, Hewlett stresses, don’t necessarily latch onto the idea of your boss as the best option.

“There’s something to be said for finding your sponsor in your boss’s boss,” she says. “Which happens to be about 20% of sponsorship relationships.” It’s easy to argue that this is actually an ideal sponsor, because while your boss’s boss might not be as entrenched in your day to day work, he or she is also unlikely to have the a conflict of interest, something your direct manager can’t claim. If you’re really that great at what you do, your boss will be tempted to keep you where you are. In fact, you shouldn’t limit your search to direct lines at all, Hewlett warns. “Sometimes it can be a senior person in another part of the company who you impress,” she says.

In the end, only about 20% of us will be sponsored during our careers, which Hewlett says, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Not everyone needs a sponsor. And that cuts to the core of the difference between sponsorship and mentorship. “Maybe everyone needs a mentor,” she says. “Because that’s about building potential. But sponsorship is about the fast-track, it’s about who gets promoted.”

What if your idea sponsor is outside your organization completely?

Entrepreneurs, professionals looking to make big career changes, and independent contractors can all have sponsors, Hewlett assures me. It’s about leveraging your social network. Hewlett uses an example from her own life.

“I run my own think tank, I’m not climbing any obvious corporate ladder,” she says. “And a little while ago, I decided that I would like to have a little more influence in Washington.” With all of her experience in the private sector, she knew she had a lot to offer the second Obama administration. “So I said, who do I know in Washington who can get me that?” Hewlett didn’t have many relationships in Washington. In fact she says she literally had to consult an old Rolodex gathering dust in her office. “And I while I was looking I remembered Alan Krueger. Three years ago he was the head of the Council of Economic Advisers.”

So she called her old acquaintance up and offered her expertise, pro-bono. “I said, ‘I know that you have a lot on your plate. You’re doing all this work with Obama’s map for women and job opportunities in the second term. Can I help you?’’’ He was thrilled. Hewlett spent the next three months working with him before she even mentioned what she was hoping to get out of the relationship. “Then he made a few phone calls and I ended up on a committee at the White House giving policy advice to the president during his second term.”

If you take away nothing else from this post, remember this: relationships matter. Having an external network of people who have received value from you, who might be able to give value back to you is critical. “I think that women tend not to do this very deliberately,” Hewlett says. “And what we find in our research is that women do tend to imagine it’s all about the work, whereas many men understand that it’s a you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours kind of thing.”



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