April 14th, 2011 | 6:00 am

How to Secure Your Sponsor and Unlock Your Path to the Top

filed under Mentors and Sponsors

Nicki HeadshotBy Nicki Gilmour, Founder and CEO of The Glass Hammer

Many women have a mentor or maybe even several mentors. But to get to the top, you need more – you need someone advocate for you, cash in their chips for you, and, frankly, wear a t- shirt with your name on it in the meetings you are not in: a sponsor.

The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling report compiled by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and the Center for Work Life Policy with Kerrie Peraino, Chief Diversity Officer of American Express, further defined for us what a sponsor is and what a sponsor does to enhance your career. Sponsorship is a huge part of getting women the stretch assignments they need to be promoted into senior executive positions.

Many women ask me how they should go about finding a sponsor. Now that we know what a sponsor does for you – advocacy at its very best – where does the rubber meet the road with finding one?

The answer: it all starts with networking, or rather building your strategic network (not just collecting a bunch of cards or catching up with a friend at an event). For example, as entrepreneur Heidi Roizen, a board member of TiVo and Yellow Media Inc., explained, “The best way to get to know other people is in the context of accomplishing something, like a volunteer project.”

Goldman Sachs hosted a seminar for women recently on “Building your Board : Unlocking Opportunity through Sponsorship” as part of their fantastic series of events called Brokering Change: A Wall Street Multicultural Women’s Exchange. This event in the series, which is open to women from other firms on the Street, addressed some of the specific challenges faced by Asian, Black, Hispanic and Native American women in the industry. In this case, a multi-cultural panel of women recounted their sponsor experiences, and rather than simply recounting the Sponsor Effect‘s findings, held a useful conversation on how to actually find a sponsor.

The Value of Sponsorship

Gail Fierstein, Managing Director in the Human Capital Management division at Goldman Sachs, referenced the recent study, stating that men are 46% more likely to have a sponsor and that 82% of men believe that relationships, along with delivering great work, drives promotions.

“All relationships are not created equal,” said Fierstein.

The panel consisted of Marie Quintero Johnson, VP, M&A Insights at Coca Cola, Ed Gilligan, Vice Chair of American Express, and Someera Khokhar, Partner at White & Case.

Each panelist recounted how they had a strong sponsor, who, in the case of Johnson and Khokhar, was their direct (male) boss. For Johnson, her first boss “helped channel her outspokenness to a productive means” and for Khokhar, her boss when she moved to New York set up a structure so she “could have access to clients and visibility within the firm,” which enabled her to see that she had a path to becoming a partner.

Gilligan, who started as a temp at American Express, said “you can see it [sponsorship] all along the way.”

Gilligan, who firmly believes you are successful if you make other people successful, acknowledged that firms have to make it easy and natural for men to reach down and sponsor people, who, left to their own devices won’t seek out sponsorship.

Building Mutually Useful Relationships

So, where do you start? Assuming competence, you need to then get some viability at the firm, and some connectivity to the right people.

On who he sponsors, Gilligan said, “I need to know them. I need to have confidence that the person, if promoted, will succeed and is someone who has demonstrated that they can get stuff done in the right way, in the context of Amex values.”

When asked how women can find their sponsors, the panelists all emphasized the need for the high performing professional to build a personal relationship with the person who can advocate on their behalf.

“’Can you do your job’ is the price of entry. Instead I ask you to think about, ‘Are you achieving your potential and are you building the relationships you needed to get there?’” explained Johnson. She added that the sponsor must feel secure that the person they take under their wing will understand the risks the sponsor takes for them. “You can never break that trust,” she said.

There are expectations on both sides. Gilligan explained that you have to earn the right to be a sponsor and there is accountability involved for sponsors to fill the pipeline with the best talent.

“You know it when you see it,” he said of companies that ingrain sponsorship of women into their culture. “Look for people who want to pay it back and look for companies that have a scorecard for their managers around developing talent.”

5 comments

  1. julie rapacki

    As always, useful and insightful, Ms. Gilmour.

  2. Roberta Guise

    This lends credence to a point made in the Wall Street Journal’s April 11 special report titled, “Women in the Economy: A Blueprint for Change.” http://on.wsj.com/gCNvfy

    The point made is that women are promoted based on performance, while men are promoted based on potential.

    Sponsors will go a long way to correcting this gender-based promotion discrepancy, by taking on talented women based on their potential.

  3. Annemarie Viljoen

    Thank you for an excellent article. Women seem to find it more difficult to approach sponsors, and I would appreciate your views on why that is the case? Is it because women have less time to attend networking events, or because women are simply to afraid to approach someone directly with such a request?

  4. Nicki Gilmour

    AnneMarie
    I think the answer to your questions lies in women not being as forthright in their “ASK” as men tend to be. So networking is just part of the connection, real work goes into building the relationship – and that is the place where guys tend to feel more comfortable (whether or not the relationship is where it should be) to make an “ask” from the potential sponsor. we will be doing an event around this- stay tuned! thank you all for reading, glad we are useful, we try very hard to inform , inspire and empower you!
    thanks
    Nicki Gilmour
    CEO and Publisher

  5. Debbie

    Great article…and comments. I would like to know the verbage men use to “ask”. If I ask a manager outisde my area to lunch, I am going outside my chain-of-command per my manager. If my “A” (fellow manager) asks someone to lunch he is taking down silos. I am looking forward to the event you refer to Nicki. I need this information. Thank you for the post!