Sponsors and mentors: Why striving women need both

Sponsorship and mentorship are essential for personal and professional growth because nobody can reach their dreams alone. As women, we tend to not ask for what we need and I’m here to help you get into the habit of asking. I want to talk to you about the difference between sponsoring and mentoring, how to get sponsors and mentors and how to pay it forward.

What is a sponsor?

A sponsor is an influential person who advocates on your behalf when you’re not in the room. A sponsor gives you guidance on how to navigate the corporate environment you want to excel in and helps put you in situations that can propel your career.

Sponsorship is common in the corporate world and is sometimes a formal program. Even if there’s no sponsorship program in your firm, it’s still going on. It’s not quite a secret society, it’s just how things work.

To become a partner at a consulting firm—Deloitte, for example—you must have sponsors advocating on your behalf with other senior leaders, the CEO and the board of directors.

To get sponsored, you don’t wait for someone to come to you. You make it happen (and I’ll tell you how in just a minute).

The sponsorship landscape for men and women at work

Sponsorship often happens more organically for men than it does for women. Men have always sponsored other men and that comes out of relationships built at the office and on the golf course. Traditionally, this hasn’t happened for women because many of us run home after work to take care of the kids.

The other thing that can keep women stagnant in their career is believing we’ll be rewarded for keeping our heads down and doing good work. Unfortunately, conscientious worker bees don’t always get noticed.

And finally, asking for a sponsor doesn’t come as naturally for the ladies as it does for the guys, so we’ve got to get over the discomfort and go for it.

As an executive, I spent many years as the lone woman at the table; I know what it’s like to be in a man’s world. But I also had a great sponsor named Jim who pushed me to stunning achievements and then would ask to pick my brain!  

Even though we’re talking more about gender diversity in the c-suite and are making strides in that area, it’s still up to each of us to find the right sponsors, men or women. I promise you don’t have to take up golf (but you might love it like I do).   

How to ask a senior leader to be your sponsor

Before you ask someone to be a sponsor, get to know the other person and demonstrate your character repeatedly. A sponsor won’t put their neck on the line for someone they don’t believe in. So be the type of person who will make a sponsor look good.

Then ask.

Here’s how: “Dan, as you might know, my goal is becoming a partner within the next five years. I’m looking for a sponsor. Would you consider sponsoring me?”

But don’t stop at one sponsor because that leaves your career track vulnerable if your sponsor leaves the organization, retires or gets demoted. Always have a couple of sponsors going to bat for you instead of putting all your eggs in one basket.

Even when you have multiple sponsors, you’ll still want to cultivate another kind of support: mentorship.

What is a mentor?

A mentor is someone who influences you personally and/or professionally. A mentor typically has specialized knowledge or expertise and excels in one or more domains. A mentor will use their expertise and experience to help you navigate challenges. For example, if you’re struggling to get the clients you want, I recommend looking for mentorship from people with sales or marketing expertise or someone who is well-connected in your industry. A mentor will listen to your situation and say, “Here’s something you might want to try…”

Anyone can be a mentor to you, even your junior. It all depends on the subject you’re curious about because mentorship is about conversations.

You’ll also find mentorship opportunities when you join a well-led mastermind group—this helps you gain a broader perspective and get exposed to collective wisdom.  

How to ask someone to mentor you

Just like with sponsorship, you must develop a relationship with someone before asking them for mentorship. Mentorship can be ongoing or occasional, depending on what works for each of you.

You might feel awkward about asking someone for mentorship (or sponsorship) but don’t let the little gremlins in your head cast doubt. Even if the other person declines or defers your request, it’s flattering for them to be asked. So, feel the fear and ask anyway!

Here are a few ways to ask for mentoring:

  • “Jane, I look at your life and I see you excelling at being calm under pressure and I’d love to pick your brain about how you do that.”
  • “Andrea, I see how you work with executives and how you’re able to extract their thoughts and articulate their voice in writing. I’m curious how you do that. I really want to learn to be a better writer. Would you consider coaching me or mentoring me a bit on that?”
  • “Robyn, I watch you do this and you navigate it so easily. Would you give me some pointers on the best way to approach this, please?”
  • “This has been a fabulous conversation and I’d like to learn more. I’m mindful of your time and I don’t want to overstep but I value your insight and how you go about doing this. I’m wondering if it would be okay for us to occasionally have conversations and you mentor me a bit?”
  • To set parameters, try something like, “John, I know how busy you are so what’s comfortable for you in terms of time?”

Modify these scripts and use whatever words are most comfortable for you. Mentorship doesn’t have to be formal (unlike sponsorship).

Our responsibility as leaders: Lifting others up

None of us can achieve our dreams and vision alone. Many people will help you along the way, just like many people have helped me. That’s why I strongly believe that it’s our duty as women to put our hands out and pull other women up with us.

When women are in leadership positions with influence and decision-making powers, it comes with great responsibility. It’s critical for us to sponsor and mentor other women because that’s how we make positive change in the workplace, in our society and at home.

Today, I encourage you to consider how you can assist others, what kind of guidance you need and to ask for help from potential sponsors and mentors. You’re worth it!

Hi, I’m Vicki Bradley, an executive coach in Toronto and the Founder and CEO of Women in Leadership Empowered.

I work with women pursuing success in executive leadership roles and the presidents and CEOs who understand that strong businesses are built with strong, diverse leadership.

WIL Empowered is a year-long program using all four aspects of leadership development: Coaching, Networking, Peer to peer mentorship and skills training. Our mission is to help women develop the skills, motivation and accountability required to succeed in their business and personal lives.

Take our five-minute leadership quiz to discover where your leadership skills are now and where you’d like them to be this time next year.

To discover more about the WIL Empowered program, visit the website.

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