In the competitive world of business, sponsorship plays a significant role in the career progression of women.
Sponsorship takes mentoring a step further by actively advocating for an individual’s advancement within an organization. I have had a number of clients ask me for help finding and securing a sponsor, so I thought I would delve into the concept of sponsorship and explore its immense value for women striving to reach new heights in their careers.
I’ll also share how my own (accidental) sponsors are the reason I landed in the c-suite.
Sponsorship involves an influential individual who uses their own social capital, network, and influence to champion and promote the professional development or progression of someone else when that someone else isn’t in the room. Essentially, a sponsor is someone who believes in your potential, advocates for your professional growth, and works actively to create opportunities for you.
Using my own career as an example, my step into management did not happen because I sought out a position. Instead, the head of an agency recognized my leadership qualities every time I briefed him on cases I was litigating and he wanted my leadership in a specific office that was struggling. He knew I understood the ins and outs of that office from my litigation work and needed me to bring the office into compliance with regulations. He was my sponsor who believed I belonged on his management team and said my name when I wasn’t in the room. He used four executives to move me into that position. I turned down the first three executives, because I didn’t want to leave the courtroom as I LOVED litigation. Finally, he sent the fourth executive to ask if I would step into management for a short period of time to bring the office into compliance and then I could return to the courtroom. My mentor (someone who provides advice and support) encouraged me to take the position permanently, because he knew that was the ticket to the c-suite of the government. Eventually, I heard what my mentor was saying and by the time I went to meet with the head of the agency (my sponsor), I told him I would accept the position permanently. Incidentally, he was elated at my decision so much so that he leapt out of his seat and hugged me. Thus began my leadership journey.
The Benefits of Sponsorship for Women
Increased Visibility: One of the greatest advantages of having a sponsor is the increased visibility it brings. A sponsor, often occupying a senior position, can introduce you to influential individuals, decision-makers, and key stakeholders within the organization. This exposure can lead to higher-profile projects, promotions, and access to important networks, ultimately accelerating your career trajectory.
Access to Opportunities: A sponsor, with their influence and insider knowledge, can open doors to coveted opportunities that may not be accessible through regular channels. They can recommend you for high-visibility assignments, stretch assignments, or participation in strategic initiatives, all of which contribute to your professional growth and broaden your skillset.
Advocacy and Support: A sponsor acts as a passionate advocate for your career advancement. They actively speak on your behalf in meetings, promotions discussions, and talent development conversations, showcasing your accomplishments and potential. Their support and endorsement carry weight and lend credibility to your capabilities, helping you overcome any barriers or biases that may exist within the organization.
Skill Development and Feedback: Sponsors not only advocate for you; they also provide valuable feedback and guidance to help you grow professionally. They may offer insights, share experiences, and provide constructive criticism to help refine your skills, broaden your perspective, and enhance your leadership capabilities.
Building a Strong Network: Through sponsorship, women have the opportunity to expand their professional networks significantly. Sponsors can introduce you to influential individuals both within and outside your organization, enabling you to forge meaningful connections that can further propel your career.
Securing a Sponsorship by Accident
As I mentioned, my sponsors are the reason I landed in the c-suite. I applied for and landed my first executive position as the deputy general counsel of an agency. Within the first few weeks of starting in that position, two male executives invited me to coffee because they liked getting to know the new executives. I appreciated the invitation and enjoyed our conversation, so I reciprocated the invite. During that second meeting, I asked if meeting for coffee could be a regular engagement for us and they agreed. As I usually volunteer to be the organizer, I put the coffee meeting on a recurring invite on all of our calendars. Through our coffee discussions, I learned about the career progressions and aspirations of the two men and they learned about my career and dreams. I never once asked them to be my sponsor, nor did it cross my mind that I should do so as I had no idea that I needed a sponsor to move forward in my career. Instead, our coffee dates truly grew out of my love of learning about other people’s lives.
Eventually, those two men became the temporary heads of an agency and they suddenly had big titles and, I imagined, beautiful offices. When this shift happened, I wasn’t sure how to reach them anymore. Suddenly, they were behind the high-level executive assistants who were ruthless in their screening of the masses seeking time on the calendars of the two men. Not one who is easily deterred, I decided to send a hand-written note to each of them, congratulating them on their new positions, and asking if I could invite myself up for coffee. I don’t remember how all the logistics were coordinated; I do know that I ended up buying four coffees (my boss insisted on joining me because she needed to be included in any work-related conversations with the two men and she didn’t understand that this wasn’t about work, but about my ongoing relationship building with these two men) and walking into their suite one morning. The two men graciously gave us a tour, which confirmed that they had beautiful offices with amazing views. As I didn’t want my boss horning in on my relationship, I didn’t broach regular coffee dates during that visit. Instead, I used a handwritten note to thank them for the tour and proposed a quarterly coffee date as I imagined their schedules could no longer handle once a month.
The coffee dates ended up being more sporadic after that until one day I received a voicemail asking me to come to their suite for a conversation. I had no idea what was happening. I told my boss as that was required. She didn’t have time to join me, so she let me go on my own. During our meeting, they offered me the position of Chief Human Capital Officer (CHCO) as the CHCO recently retired. The two men knew I was underutilized in the Deputy General Counsel position and that I wasn’t growing as a leader in the way I had hoped. They saw me as fully qualified for a position that I wasn’t sure I could do. I told them I was thrilled to be offered the position and was excited to get started. I never imagined that the two men who invited me to coffee as a brand new executive would be my sponsors and pull me up to the c-suite.
Sponsorship is a powerful tool that can fuel the success of women. It goes beyond mentorship by actively advocating for advancement, visibility, and opportunities. Having a sponsor who believes in your potential and is willing to use their influence on your behalf can greatly accelerate your career trajectory. Don’t overlook the men in your life and be willing to invest in building relationships with other executives because you never know who might accidentally become your sponsor.
Work with me
Do you long to be in the c-suite, yet you’re not sure what relationships to nurture or leverage? Maybe you have a small network and don’t know how to build a bigger one. Whatever your worries are about sponsorship, I can help. Click here to pick a time and we can talk about how to find your sponsor.