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Episode 008

Episode 8: Forget A Mentor. Find A Sponsor.

by Gillian Fox

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I wonder if you know the difference between a mentor and a sponsor?

A client said to me recently: Aren’t sponsors the financial backers on a football team!

Another one said: I met my sponsor at AA – I said: it’s not quite what I’m talking about here, but whatever gets you through the night!

Today we are clearing this up. We are talking about how sponsors differ from mentors and what you can do to attract them to help you progress in your career.

You are listening to Your Brilliant Career. I’m your host, Gillian Fox executive coach, women’s career expert, and entrepreneur. The podcast that teaches you how to get the most out of your career. We talk tactics, tools, and stories that all help incredible women like you achieve the success you deserve. If you want to learn more about how to create the brilliant career you’ve always wanted, I encourage you to check out the RISE Program. It’s my four-month career development program. Through a combination of individual executive coaching sessions and group workshops, you’ll discover how to overcome obstacles, create opportunities and reach new heights in your career.

Hello and welcome to the show. I hope you’ve had a good week. At the beginning of my week, I saw a note in my diary to produce another episode – a little reminder – and when I saw it – I had no idea what I was going to talk about today. The challenge for me isn’t coming up with something, the challenge is there’s too much choice.

So, I asked myself, what do the women in my programs LOVE learning about. The immediate answer was sponsors. They love learning what a sponsor is – what it isn’t – why they need them if they want to progress – and how to attract them. So, this is what we are talking about today.

I spend a lot of time with organisations in the corporate sector helping them build a culture of sponsorship because we know a lack of sponsorship is preventing talented women – like you – from advancing into senior leadership roles. There is a lot more organisations can do, when they know more about sponsorship and how they can enable it.

But today is about you and what you can do – not your HR department or the executive team. I’m excited to share this knowledge you today. I think all career minded women need to be armed with this knowledge.

You know, when I initially talk about sponsors in my workshops, I see women’s eyeballs expanding as they realise they don’t have enough sponsors – and how do I do this. How do I attract more of them and it’s this huge Aha moment that gets everyone moving – it inspires some new action – which I love. If you are past participant listening to this – I’m sure you’re sitting there laughing right, because you know that’s true.

So, let’s dive in. Firstly, let’s clarify the difference between mentors and sponsors.

Mentors are confidantes…they listen. They give advice and support. They are great at giving us perspective. They also share their expertise, knowledge, and experience to help with our personal development.

You may have had a mentor yourself. And if you have… you will know they are terrific if you need emotional support, or feedback on how to improve, and other advice.

When I think back to early in my media career – I had a fabulous mentor. She was the managing director of the Estee Lauder group at the time. She was fantastic at giving me feedback on things that had happened or advice around future challenges. She boosted my confidence, gave me perspective.

It was very formal arrangement – rather old school – and I think mentoring today is very different and it should be very different. And that’s for another episode altogether.

So, let’s talk about sponsors so we’re clear on how they differ to mentors.

Sponsors are people who believe in your potential, and who will help you advance. They are not giving you advice, but they can offer visibility and they can even help remove barriers.

A sponsor will vouch for you when you are not in the room and when the doors are closed in the decision-making room.

This is why we say… mentors help you skill up and sponsors help you move up.

Or put another way … Mentors advise. Sponsors act.

But too often, women in particular will confuse the terms “mentor” and “sponsor” – and to the detriment of their careers.

The Harvard Business Review went so far as to say women are over-mentored and under-sponsored… and that’s why men are getting promoted and hold more of the senior roles.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett wrote a terrific book on sponsorship called “Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor”. It’s a great read – I highly recommend it. She is a brilliant scholar and provides so many excellent insights into sponsorship and what companies can do differently. And yes, I did steal the title for this podcast from her because I think it’s fantastic. It’s disruptive. It gets people to open their eyes to the power of sponsors. The title alone makes you curious. Mentoring gets so much airtime and mentors are great. But what about sponsors? They are the influencers that will progress your career.

So many people think if you have a mentor to help you with your career you are set. If you’re on a mentoring program, it will propel you towards that opportunity. But mentors won’t act on your behalf. They won’t advocate for you. They won’t get you your next promotion. They are very different to sponsors.

The relationship between mentors and a mentee is it very private. When I think about my mentor at Estee Lauder, hardly anyone knew that she was my mentor. I’d organise my catch ups and my calls – and I could do whatever I wanted with her advice, there was no obligation.

So, mentors can be these rarely seen advisors guiding your career along. They don’t have the visibility or the accountability in the same way a sponsor does.

I’ve been thinking about this. I think that there is so much emphasis on mentorship that many women believe that a mentor will help them advance their careers. But what I have learnt and want to share with you today, is that sponsors are the people who will help you rise through your organisation and get paid more.

Sponsors are the ones that will advocate on your behalf and actively try to advance your career.

Now why is this so pertinent to women and if sponsors are our influencers – how do you attract more of them?

Let me start by hitting you with this fascinating piece of research.

It comes from Hewlett’s excellent research and the data says that women on average have three times as many mentors as men and men have twice as many sponsors.

Let me just say that again. Women on average have three times as many mentors as men. And men have twice as many sponsors.

Why is that a problem? Well, if you’re over mentored and under sponsored you’ll get some great advice, but you won’t necessarily have someone advocating for your advancement.

We all need someone in our corner vouching for us. Saying, “they’d be great for that role, that opportunity”. There’s a good chance that’s how you got your last promotion… and indeed the one before that.

Sponsorship is essential to gender equality and diversity and what kind of result does that produce when women don’t have enough sponsors – it affects us all. It prevents more women from rising.

Successful careers require sponsorship.

And if you are listening to this and from your own perspective you need some extra convincing right now listen to this!! According to the Center for Work-life Policy, a New York based organisation, a sponsor provides a statistical career benefit of up to 30%.

30% more success in your career – now come on… that is a game-changer!

So… you see there are real benefits of having the right sponsors.

So I said, if sponsors are our influencers – how do YOU get more of them. This is the question?

I worked at News Corp for 9 years, early on in my career, and one day my boss said to me ‘Gillian… the MD of the magazine division has got some questions about how they could increase their ad sales and revenue – and I said you were the one to talk to…’

Beautifully handballed! But of course, I said sure… happy to help. Now, I didn’t think anything of it, and I suggested we have the chat in the office kitchen… so the MD and her 2IC sat in the News Corp cafeteria – and just chatted… for about an hour.

I shared some thoughts, suggestions, insights. It was a decent business conversation. They were grateful and I went back to work.

My job was done – I was asked to help – and I did.

And then promptly forgot the whole experience.

But you never quite know when those unexpected meetings could lead to other things.

Five months later, the same MD moved to the second largest magazine publisher in Australia – and who did she choose to recruit as her Commercial Director?

One of the hundreds of applicants she had resumes for – or did she choose that random woman that was happy to help her all those months ago in the office kitchen!?

Yep, she chose me to lead 120 people and twelve titles. Unbelievable… and it all happened from that first meeting.

Unbeknownst to me – she became a sponsor and provided a wonderful and unexpected career opportunity.

And it’s interesting because I expected nothing from that meeting. My contribution came from a pure service mindset.

It’s reciprocity at its best – and see, sponsorship isn’t something that you can ask for – it’s something that has to be earned – which makes it so different from mentoring.

I could ask YOU to be my mentor and you could say yes or no.

But I can’t ask you to be my sponsor – I have to do the work first!!!

So, I acquired a sponsor that day through a single situation and this could happen to you too.

Today, many of my sponsors are people that I met in business ten years ago… and they are like gold to me today because we’ve developed a deeper trust. Now, they recommend me, support me publicly – they see my potential even when sometimes I don’t.

I was also lucky enough to work with a large CRM company delivering programs throughout Asia for 10 months. I travelled to India, Singapore, and Korea – it was fantastic.

And how did it come about? I was offered the opportunity because a sponsor stepped forward and said Gillian is the perfect person to deliver these programs.

If I’d tried to sell myself – would I have gotten the job above all of the other contenders – probably not… it was the power of the endorsement that got me that gig. Someone influential on the sidelines advocating for me behind doors.

And this is why attracting sponsors is something we need to do for our entire career – it’s not a one-off activity. It’s something you want to integrate into your leadership style and approach for the rest of your career…

Ask yourself: How many sponsors have you got today?

One of the challenges of finding a sponsor at work is the bias in our organisations. And I share this because I just want you understand the broader context.

Dr Jennifer De Vries is a brilliant gender strategist and organisational consultant. She published a fantastic report titled Sponsorship: Creating Career Opportunities for Women in Higher Education. Although her research focused on the higher education sector, the findings are relevant to most industries.

Dr De Vries refers to sponsorship as a replicatory act, which means we imitate behaviours. She states so elegantly, ‘we sponsor people like us, with careers like us’. Now I think this is so true and it’s not even intentional but boy, does it have a negative impact on the gender equity ambitions. You see if there are mostly males that make up your senior leadership team at work, then those male leaders are more likely to sponsor other males or people like themselves, with careers like themselves. It is the unconscious bias piece at play. So, sponsorship does exist in all organisations but not necessarily the type that supports the advancement of women.

Compounded with this, and this just is my experience, a lot of senior leaders don’t understand sponsorship. They know there are mentors, and then there are sponsors. Yet many don’t know the difference.

The truth is no one has a self-made career. There is always someone in the wings enabling our progress. Sponsors are critical to career success in any industry.

The fact is that there are just some doors we just can’t open by ourselves, and we need people like sponsors to help us do this and to enable these moments. As women we need more sponsors and while organisations probably need to take more responsibility – there are things that you can do to help yourself.

One of my intentions for this episode is I want you to develop an appetite for attracting sponsors. Not only will they progress you, but they will also be surprisingly helpful when there’s a restructure or you’re placed in a vulnerable position at work. They will speak on your behalf; they will give voice to your value in the right circles. So it’s a great investment.

So let me take a moment share some tips on how you can attract more sponsors.

So, the first tip I’d like to share, and it’s probably the very first to consider is – identify the good sponsors – that is, the people in your organisation who have the grit, the influence and the track record for supporting others. Don’t invest and try to attract the attention of people don’t support others.

To identify good sponsors, you need to scan that business horizon and identify the leaders in your organisation that have a track record for supporting talent because that’s who you want on your side.

If you’re going to do the work, then this is the kind of person you want to invest in –be selective. Don’t just reach out randomly.

Scan your organisation for people who are working where you want to be working — in a particular position, or maybe on a project that you hope to be on. Be intentional and find the good sponsors before you put that grunt work in yourself.

Yesterday I was coaching someone, and they said they want to position themselves for promotion in the year ahead, but their boss is hard to read, and she was uncertain if he would actively advocate for her. Through the conversation in the coaching process – she realised and was genuinely surprised – that her boss doesn’t advocate for anyone! He would endorse her if someone asked through the conversation but not an active sponsor. It made her realise that she needs to attract sponsors in the business to acquire this promotion. And that means she needs to attract people over and above her boss.

Another tip to share and help you attract more sponsors is this – when you identify your sponsor, be on the front foot for exposure opportunities. Don’t sit on the sidelines waiting for that person to acknowledge you or tap you on the shoulder for your opportunity. Be proactive.

Attracting sponsors is a lot easier when you have the visibility, and you can showcase your capabilities. So… if you see a project that would allow you to demonstrate your skills and get closer to the sponsor, then that would be worth pursuing.

The third tip is probably the most important one. If you just take this away from today’s episode, you will still be ahead of the game because it’s that important and it’s this – sponsors need a two-way relationship. That’s right, it’s not all about us. It’s sad, I know! But think about ANY good relationship – it needs to be reciprocal – it can’t be one way. So, this is no different.

So, this poses the question – what do you offer the sponsor? They are offering you a lot. And may I add its high risk for them to sponsor you – much higher risk than being a mentor where you can take or leave the advice. A sponsor is risking their reputation by advocating for you. If you don’t perform – it comes directly back on them.

Now, I think this is an important point because sometimes – and I know its unintentional – people think just because they are emerging talent and working hard that someone should sponsor them. But the truth is – we all want something in return.

Senior people will invest in you when they see a return.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett explains that a sponsor wants three things before they decide to invest in you. I love this – let me share the three.

She says:

Firstly, sponsors are looking for Good performance – They need you to be good at what you do – and look, I imagine you are very good at what you do – so this one – hopefully – is pretty straight forward.
The second thing a sponsor wants you to add Value – that is contribute to them and the results they are trying to achieve. This means you need to understand what they want to achieve in the business. And then how you can contribute, and value add. Think about people who have supported you throughout your career – I bet you contributed something meaningful to them. It was a win-win relationship.
And thirdly Hewlett says sponsors want your Loyalty. How do you show loyalty? You are respective, observant to their needs, you show your support of them in the workplace. This matters to sponsors. If they’ve got your back – they want to know you’ve got theirs.

So there’s a few tips. My experience is that many women underestimate the sponsorship opportunity because they think their hard work will allow them to be recognised. We know that is not always the case.

Some women also think that influencing or planning strategic moves or chasing exposure opportunities, is a bit grubby. Not something that feels right.

Now if this is you – let me challenge here. You can do this with integrity, poise and professionalism. You can do this well… and not only will you attract sponsors, but you earn the reputation of someone who is a thoughtful contributor and capable of building relationships with people more senior than themselves.

When you have the right language and approach you can communicate in an authentic way, you can be compelling and influence more effectively. When you have the skills – and this is the work we do in the RISE Program – you can attract sponsors without turning into someone you don’t like.

So…the bottom line is that we can and need to attract sponsors to support our careers. It’s a great opportunity for you if you’re not already doing this.

I love this quote. “Stop being afraid of what could go wrong … and think of what could go right”.

Now think about that… if you put your time and energy into developing these sponsor relationships, where will your career be in twelve months from now?

I’m going to leave you with that thought. That is a wrap today. Thank you for listening. Have a super week and I’ll see you in the next episode.

That’s a wrap today. Thank you so much for listening. I’ll see you next time – cheers.

Thanks so much for listening to today’s podcast. If you’re loving what you’re learning on the podcast, sign up for our free training session on, How to Land your Next Promotion. This course is going to give you a close look at the three reasons why people don’t land their next promotion and what you can do differently to ensure you succeed. I think you’ll love it. Head over to yourbrilliantcareer.com.au/land-your-promotion. I look forward to seeing you there.

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