Despite corporations instituting formalized mentoring programs for women, little is changing in the percentage of women reaching high level jobs. Most Fortune 500 companies have some form of mentoring program. So what is missing?
In one word, sponsorship.
So what is the difference between mentoring and sponsorship?
Mentoring is the act of teaching, skills coaching, sharing resources, challenging the mentoree to go outside his or her comfort zone, and providing a safe learning environment.
Good bosses should always be good mentors, and you can learn a lot by having someone outside of your existing first line at work. I think everyone can benefit by having a mentor — someone you look up to, who has knowledge in areas you need to learn, and who is actively interested in your growth–personally and professionally.
Formal mentoring programs solicit people in an organization to help coach another person in various aspects of the company, industry, and job. They may often include suggestions on in-house and outside trainings, getting the mentee assigned to present at business meetings, and other activities. Although useful in concept, these programs can often become busy work for both mentoree and mentor, without the coveted result of promotion for either.
Sponsorship is someone selling you at higher levels. They believe in your capacity to grow and take on greater responsibility and they are betting on your success. This person is using their personal clout and position to help you rise. They are risking some of their credibility on your ability to do what they think you can.
When I earned Rookie of the Year, my first year out of college I had worked hard and turned around my initial fear of sales into a huge win. But my award did not come from my efforts alone. My boss, Mike Grey, was a well-respected manager who went to bat for me. He sponsored me to receive that award and later a promotion. Mike was both my mentor and my sponsor. He was not assigned these tasks; he took me under his wings because he saw something in me. He thought I could win, and he could help. He also knew that if his bet on me was correct, it would reflect well on him. It worked.
At IBM, I was sponsored by my own boss which got the attention of our General Manager and later the eye of management two layers up from him. The result was me being sponsored by someone at the Vice President level. He was not my mentor; he was my sponsor. When high-level promotions were discussed, he was betting on me and people were listening. Later when he was hired away to become CEO of another company, I received a phone call to come work for him.
Yet, statistics show that women are sponsored less than men and are, even today, considered a greater risk. Companies are beginning official sponsorship programs similar to their introduction of formal mentorship programs to compensate for the lack of sponsorship of women.
I am not completely enthusiastic about such programs because being assigned to you does not result in their emotional belief in your capacity that happens when someone elects to sponsor you.
What these programs will do is give you visibility at top levels because someone will be noticing what you are doing. And with effort on your part, being observed will give you the chance to shine.
However, bigger change can happen when women start actively sponsoring each other. Women at the top are often worried about being seen as gender biased and so they avoid sponsoring other women. This just perpetuates the status quo. If you are in management, especially upper management, or own your own company I suggest you take two tactics. First, always be sponsoring a man and a woman. And second, always be looking for good women you can recommend to your male colleagues that they sponsor.
Women will need to stand up for each other, not wait for men to do it for us, if we want to take the positions of influence and leadership we desire. Allowing other women to stay stalled in their career because no one at the top is noticing them because we fear being labeled is actually demonstrating a lack of leadership. Gone are the days of protesting and calling on government regulation to open doors for us. It is now every woman’s responsibility to do what she can for other women.