Women still struggle to get ahead. That’s evident in the results of the recent Women in the Workplace Study* by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company. The corporate playing field for women remains uneven. The study* found that women’s experiences at work differ. And, women question the fairness in opportunities in the workplace.
- Only 44% of women think the best opportunities go to the most deserving employees
- Only 54% of women think they have the same opportunity for growth as their peers
- One-third of women think their gender will make it harder to get a raise, promotion, or chance to get ahead.
Will you sit back and wait for Human Resources to bring equity to the workplace? Or, will you leverage the potential relationships around you to change the game for your career?
Sponsors: A Game Changer
Women are missing critical relationships that are needed to change the course of their careers. Women of color have an even greater challenge. The leadership pipeline is dominated by males. And, women’s networks are not as fully developed among influencers in the organization.
Therefore, women need an advocate, known as a sponsor, who is in the inner circle of the people making and influencing talent decisions. A sponsor may speak up about you when potential job openings and talent discussions arise. However, if these influencers don’t know who you are, your track record, or what you’re capable of, then they can’t support you.
Whether or not you have a sponsor depends a lot on what you do. So, how do you get a sponsor and how do you keep one?
Getting a Sponsor: Two Approaches
From leaders I’ve interviewed, there are two schools of thought on how to get a sponsor: earning a sponsor or requesting a sponsor. Let’s see how these approaches work.
Earning a Sponsor
Some strongly stated you don’t ask someone to be a sponsor. Sponsors are earned. A sponsorship develops from interactions with you and consistent exposure to you that build trust in your ability and potential. Sponsorship grows from the human psychological response that builds as someone gets to know you, becoming comfortable and familiar with who you are and what you represent—your brand promise. Sometimes, you may not even realize you have a sponsor. A sponsor can be aware of you without having a direct connection with you personally.
Requesting a Sponsor
Other leaders believe you should advocate for yourself and ask a specific leader to be a sponsor. You don’t just wait on the sideline to be put into the game. Let the coach know you’re ready and that you want in. If you use this approach, articulate where you’d like to go in your career, the skills you hold, the skills you’re building, and the track record of execution you bring to the table. However, only ask a leader who is familiar and comfortable with you. You don’t want to put someone in an uncomfortable position when they have doubts or questions about you. This issue is extremely delicate, so proceed with caution.
Begin Here: Build a Valued Reputation
Realize that the more people know about you, the more comfortable they will feel recommending you. Sponsors were instrumental in my career at Humana and GE. However, I found that I had to do my part to build a reputation that leaders were willing to invest in and to market myself. You must do the same.
When sponsors recommend you, their necks are on the line. People who trust them trust their recommendations. You become a reflection on them. You owe it to them to do your very best.
Once you’ve built a reputation others are willing to advocate for, determine which approach to getting a sponsor will work best for you. Consider your company’s culture, the type of relationship, how well the person knows you, and how you need his/her support. Be thoughtful and purposeful through this process.
The choice is yours. You can settle, or take steps to build the critical relationships that will change the game for your career.
* LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, 2016 Women in the Workplace Report
To find out more about sponsors and how to get them download this excerpt from Chapter 7 of my FuelForward® book. Download here and accelerate your career moves up the corporate hierarchy.