Finding the fairy Godfather

Why women need career sponsors more than mentors


A sponsor could be ‘your’ voice in the room like Barack Obama was for Hillary Clinton during US presidential elections, even though the latter lost. Photo: Charles Mostoller/Bloomberg
A sponsor could be ‘your’ voice in the room like Barack Obama was for Hillary Clinton during US presidential elections, even though the latter lost. Photo: Charles Mostoller/Bloomberg

A sponsor can confer a statistical career benefit of 22-30% on a protégé, says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the founding president of Center for Work-Life Policy, a New York-based think tank that designs policies for enhancing work-life balance. More importantly, research led by her and published in 2010 in the Harvard Business Review showed that women are only half as likely as their male peers to access a sponsor, which could be a strong reason holding them back from accessing the top of the management pyramid.

Mentor or sponsor?

There’s a difference between the two. By sharing experiences, offering feedback and providing insights on how to navigate the organizational dynamics, a mentor’s role in career progression is undoubtedly important. However, a mentor may not have the power or the stature to advocate on behalf of a protégé with stakeholders who matter, or offer her visibility by introducing her to a wider network and pointing her to career-enhancing opportunities. This is where a sponsor steps in. A sponsor has the currency, the connections and the standing to push and advocate, and, in doing so, a sponsor puts his reputation on the line. 

“A mentor plays an advisory role, and may not have a clear visibility on the mentee’s career progression. But the fact that they are removed from the workplace could provide an opportunity to seek a dispassionate and unbiased perspective. A sponsor, on the other hand, could be ‘your’ voice in the room during crucial talent and performance discussions, who endorses you by providing objective examples of your capability. Sponsors also test potential through challenging assignments, providing timely developmental guidance and constructive feedback,” says Suchitra Bhaskar, senior vice-president and group head (talent management, diversity and inclusion), Reliance Industries Ltd, which has ventures in sectors like refining, petrochemicals, telecom and retail.

But if your mentor works with you, the boundary between the roles of mentor and sponsor could blur at some point—there would be an obvious overlap. In such circumstances, a sponsor-sponsee or a mentor-mentee relationship stands on a mutually beneficial, rather than an altruistic, foundation, for the sponsor/mentor stands to gain as much from the protégé’s success as the latter.

Rajashree Nambiar, chief executive officer (CEO) of financial services company India Infoline Finance Ltd, says she has personally benefited from an engagement with a combination of coach, mentor and sponsor. “By providing an unbiased and a dispassionate view, a coach leads you to perspectives that help address impediments and unravel mental locks. A mentor adds value by offering perspective and advice, but a sponsor clearly provides a career fillip by advocating those who inspire confidence by standing for reliability, going beyond the brief, and have self-delivery, self-drive and self-initiative at their core,” she says.

Finding a sponsor

Bhagirath Shanbhag, head (human resource and personnel), Larsen and Toubro Realty Ltd, was nominated for developmental programmes in his previous organization by a sponsor. This opportunity enhanced his skills and gave him an all-India responsibility. “I am where I am today because of this sponsorship,” Shanbhag admits.

He would look for five qualities in an individual seeking sponsorship—first, the commitment, drive and persistence for delivery; second, the ability to bring in external knowledge, expertise and perspectives to projects through robust internal and external networks; third, the competence to get to the root of the matter, being able to connect the dots and consider issues within the larger picture; fourth, the emotional intelligence that provides the ability to assess people and situations by reading the unsaid; and finally, a demonstration of sincerity and professional integrity.

Interestingly, these five qualities are reflected in the five dimensions of the personal brand framework outlined by Susan Hodgkinson in her book The Leader’s Edge. A well thought out self-development strategy along these dimensions would help find potential sponsors.

Product 

Product is the sum of a person’s experience, skills and competencies—the intellectual capital. So hone and broaden not just technical, but also communication, negotiation and influencing skills, besides aiming for flawless delivery and results, and soliciting expansive assignments. 

“Reeling under the double burden syndrome, trying to balance work and family, women frequently tend to remain agnostic towards continuous learning and slip into a comfort zone, not displaying the same drive, interest and hunger for challenging assignments as men,” says Nambiar. If you are looking for a sponsor, don’t let go of your intellectual capital.

Persona

Persona refers to the social intelligence imperative for building constructive relationships. “Women are not very good networkers and tend to remain task-focused, little realizing that they need to step out of their comfort zones and actively reach out to people across levels and functions. Networking is a skill that needs to be actively developed and enjoyed as a wonderful learning experience for all,” says Suchitra. Look for avenues to engage with people in general and potential sponsors in particular—for example, cross-functional or philanthropic projects. Focus on building a network that is oriented upwards and outwards.

“Women could create more space for their career progression by practising the nuances of influencing and relationship-building to garner greater support from stakeholders both at home and at work. Remember, in a highly digitized and connected world, networking may not necessarily be about wining and dining after office. A judicious engagement via social media may be an effective option for connecting with people,” says Shanbhag. 

Promotion

Promotion points to your ability to gain visibility. Make your skills, strengths and achievements known to others through audience-centric messages delivered at the right forums. “Visibility is the key to growth and it is time women understood the benefits of speaking about their work, seeking different perspectives and sharing best practices which are crucial aspects that robust networking offers,” says Suchitra.

Packaging and permission

Packaging is the executive presence in terms of communication style, attire and any other element that triggers a first impression, while permission is about self-belief, self-confidence and commitment to your own career development.

Studies show that women typically underestimate their own potential. Bruce Kasanoff, author of How To Self-Promote Without Being A Jerk, says in a Forbes article that women often wait until they’re competent before they feel confident, whereas men often feel confident before they have achieved full competence. A 2011 online survey conducted by the Institute of Leadership and Management, a UK-based provider of leadership, coaching and management training, covered 2,960 practising leaders, comprising men and women almost equally, and found that 70% of men had high levels of self-confidence, compared to 50% of women; and 50% of women admitted to feelings of self-doubt, compared with only 31% of men.

While women must overcome this mindset, the onus is also on organizations to build a culture where sponsorship is viewed as an essential component of leadership, communicate this expectation explicitly to senior executives and link it to the talent management system, suggests a 2011 report, “Sponsoring Women To Success”, by Catalyst, a US-headquartered non-profit.

Atul Srivastava, CEO of Effective People, a human resource consulting and training company in Mumbai, says nurturing, mentoring, developing and sponsoring talent undoubtedly lies at the core of a leadership role.

Charu Sabnavis is a learning and organizational development facilitator and founder director of Delta Learning.

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