As mentioned in my last post, one of the most critical factors to achieving success in the workplace is finding sponsors – the right sponsors – who will open doors for you and actively support you as you grow. Malcolm Gladwell listed this as one of the 3 critical factors for meteoric success in his book, Outliers (along with 10,000 hours of hard work and a large spoonful of luck) and Sylvia Ann Hewitt wrote a whole book about it: Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor
Until lately, this was a pretty new concept for me. Looking back at my career thus far however, I can definitely see how sponsorship has shaped my path. Let me share a bit of what I’ve learned.
What is a sponsor, and what is a mentor?
A mentor is someone who gives advice. She/he is typically a person more senior than you, who has taken an interest in your development, growth and success and tries to guide you as you define and follow your journey, sharing experiences, knowledge and suggesting course-corrections. You can think of a mentor as someone who helps you passively.
A sponsor, however, is a senior person who actively helps you follow your journey (or leap-frog into a whole new journey you never even dreamed about). They would typically hand you a challenging assignment (giving you that chance to show off your fabulous skills and get noticed), connect you to an advantageous person or opportunity or flat out “bang the table for you” when you come up for a promotion or an assignment.
Why is this important?
I know that the engineer in every one of us believes that she/he should be valued primarily on the virtue of his/her work, but that simply is not the case.
Organizations are made up of people, and despite them being governed by policies, are in the end, just a bunch of human beings being human beings. At every level within an organization, irrespective of company culture, there are “politics” at play. People build networks around their interests, gravitating towards people they get along with and people that can/will help them in some way now or in the future. Little communities emerge at the water dispensers or on the weekends. As individuals in a community achieve greater success, they tend to start creating opportunities for others in that community to also succeed, keeping their “followers” close to them at every level.
Very clearly then, in order to get ahead, you need to be doing a lot more than just showing up to kick ass at your daily tasks!
The sponsorship cards are stacked against women
McKinsey & Co. teamed up with LeanIn.org to do some killer research on Women in the Workplace, and discovered some important – and unsettling – facts.
“Women are three times more likely to rely on a network that is mostly female. Because men typically hold more senior-level positions, this means women are less likely to get access to people with the clout to open doors for them.”
Although the number of senior women leaders in a typical US workplace is increasing, senior leadership is still largely dominated by men. This means that a woman is less likely to get access to senior level people who can really open doors for them. This effect deepens the more senior a woman becomes.
So what does all of this mean for you and I?
In the field of engineering, cybersecurity and others, where senior women are still very few and far between, women are even less likely to have access to senior women sponsors. In my last post I talked about how its a total misconception that women don’t sponsor each other. The truth is, they do! What we also need to start doing a lot more of, is actively seeking out male sponsors as well, with the ability to really open doors for us.
It also means that as we progress, we need to be acutely aware that younger women will be seeking us out as sponsors, and that we have the duty to create opportunities for them and connect them to a more balanced network of men and women.
My next post going to be on how to go about finding a sponsor. Stay tuned for more!