Don’t just look for mentors. Look for sponsors.
The long-term impact of a sponsor is different than that of a mentor. Make sure you have both.
We’re often told about the value of mentorship as women. We hear about it as we grow up, and many companies and organizations highlight the benefits of mentorships offer programs both internally and externally.
Mentorship is important, but I’d argue that sponsorship is just as important (more important? crucial?) to getting ahead, especially in the tech fields, where women are chronically underrepresented and under-advanced.
What’s the difference?
The biggest difference between a mentor and sponsor is advocacy.
A mentor is someone who makes themselves available for advice, guidance, brainstorming, venting, etc, and almost exclusively in a confidential setting. There’s usually a more passive set of actions on the part of the mentor, as the mentee leads outreach and conversation. Mentors are people who enjoy one-to-one relationships and nurturing, encouraging and supporting their mentees. But beyond conversational sit downs, the activity generally stops.
A sponsor is someone who backs and advocates for their sponsee. They may or may not also act in a mentorship capacity as well. The relationship in this case is much more “active” in that a sponsor will take into account performance, capabilities and long-term potential of their sponsee. The public-facing component of advocacy means they’re putting their own reputation on the line, and therefore will have a certain set of “expectations” and accountability.
A few numbers
When it came to getting assigned to a high-visibility team or stretch assignment, some 43 percent of male employees and 36 percent of females approached their manager and made the request. With a sponsor, however, the numbers rose to 56 percent and 44 percent, respectively.
Seventy percent of men and 68% of women who have a sponsor reported being satisfied with their career advancement. Women with sponsors are 27% more likely than their unsponsored female peers to ask for a raise and 22% more likely to ask for the “stretch assignments” that build their reputations as leaders. The truth is that sponsors better position women to advance in the workplace.
That sounds great!
But guess what? Women are 54% less likely than men to have a sponsor.
So we’ve got to be a more proactive in this arena as we move through our careers.
Does that mean I don’t need mentors?
Mentors are incredibly valuable. There is sometimes no substitute to being able to sit down with someone confidentially and neutrally and work through problems or ideas.
The personal support you get from a mentor is strengthening and encouraging in a way that often gives women the confidence they need to take key steps in their career or make tough decisions in the workplace.
But it’s important to also look for someone with the qualities of a sponsor. As suggested above, it may not be easy! A sponsor needs to believe in you. A lot. If they’re going to put their neck on the line for you, they’ve got to trust you’ll excel.
So look for sponsors at the same time you look for mentors. It’ll pay off in the long term.
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