To get promoted, women need champions, not mentors

Fighting for the win.
Fighting for the win.
Image: Reuters/Grigory Dukor
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Instead of adding a mentor or more Twitter followers this fall, women need someone far more powerful for their career if they want to succeed: a sponsor.

As a ticket to the top, a sponsor will work equally well whether you’re climbing the corporate ladder or a working as an entrepreneur, a writer or activist, said Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and author of the new book Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor. A sponsor—basically a power broker who will endorse you in closed door meetings and support you in stormy moments—could also be valuable for executives established in their careers.

Women are too passive about finding a sponsor.  ”Women have twice as many mentors as men, but half as many sponsors,” said Hewlett.

The key difference between mentors and sponsors are mentors are one-way streets, giving their chosen mentee a gift of wisdom, time and advice. Sponsorship requires reciprocity and commitment; sponsors serve as champions.

One in five US companies have sponsor programs, according to the Society of Human Resource Management, and many professional associations also match young people to mentors. Mentoring is easier to encourage and develop, but sponsorship pays off—and may even help women with break-through assignments and promotions.

“Sponsors advocate on [behalf of] their protégé, connecting them to important players and assignments. In doing so, they make themselves look good,” Hewlett wrote in a New York Times piece. The sponsor trusts the protégé to advance his cause.

“This is what men have been doing for decades,” to land promotions, investors or new clients, Hewlett told Quartz. “The default is a mini-me,” with men choosing other men. No wonder male professionals are 46% more likely to have a sponsor than women and whites are 63% more likely than professionals of color to have someone at the decision-table backing them.

Hewlett’s research—based on surveys of 9,983 workers in the US and UK, and more than 100 managers through online focus groups from 2010 to 2012—shows that sponsorship can give up to a 30% boost in stretch assignments and pay increases.

Her new book gives a map for locating and landing a sponsor.

If you cannot find a sponsor in your office or co-working space, the relationship today “can be virtual,” she said. A younger employee could leverage her knowledge of and standing on Twitter or Klout to advise potential sponsors of these newer tools. Yet this should just be the start of what they do to create a symbiotic relationship. Sponsorship involves risk and rests on trust, so it may be built better in person, Hewlett added.

When she was seeking sponsors to build her nonprofit research organization, Hewlett knew she had to discover a “currency” that would be valuable to corporate leaders. “I couldn’t conjure up tickets to the Super Bowl or seats on my private plane or even an… expensive lunch,” she said. But she has an amazing network and could offer keynote speeches at a corporate lunch or breakfast.

“You’ve got to figure out what’s helpful to them,” she said. “Figuring out your currency is a fabulous exercise.”