In 2005 I was starting my career at an advertising agency and was encouraged to sign up for a mentor through a company-sponsored program. I did it because that’s what you’re supposed to do right out of college. I was connected with a senior-level account executive and we had a short phone conversation where they asked me to reach out again if I ever needed anything or if I wanted to grab coffee. “That sounds great!” I said with absolutely zero intention of reaching out again. I was 22, barely had time to eat lunch most days, and had no idea what to talk to this person about. This wasn’t going to go anywhere if I, the intimidated one, was supposed to lead this relationship.
This is just one reason why mentoring doesn’t always produce great results. I’ve had some wonderful mentors who have influenced my career. Every networking seminar, career book, and advisor in college pushed mentorship as the holy grail of career success. Sure, it’s helpful, but as female leaders are we truly making the biggest impact on other women by simply becoming mentors? It’s quite frankly just not enough. Being a mentor is a passive relationship with someone where the mentee may not actually realize a benefit from the relationship for years (or ever). Mentorship is beneficial, but it’s not getting women to the top of their organizations.
What more can be done? Sponsoring women and expending our political capital to do so.
I was quite thrilled to hear Marianne Cooper, lead researcher for Lean In and sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, speak last year at the Women in Leadership conference in Oklahoma City. She was one of those subject-matter experts that you could listen to for days at a time. Her insights and facts about gender equality in the workplace have had a lasting impression on me. Cooper spoke about the fact that women are “over-mentored and under sponsored.” In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg discusses how impactful mentorship and sponsorship are on career progression, but that men show an easier time developing these relationships.
While a lot could be written (and has) about finding a sponsor, I’m not sure enough emphasis is put on senior-level leadership to become sponsors and lead those relationships by scheduling time, directing the conversation, and helping women get promoted. Guidance, influence, and mentorship are great, but expending your own political capital on someone is an action that has immediate benefits. It comes with a bit of risk, though. To recommend someone for a job or promotion means being willing to take a small reputational hit if they’re not the right fit. Yet, if we want to see gender equality at the top of organizations, we have to take some risks. They’re not as scary as we think.
I was recently talking to Kathy Fahl, Director of the Gender+Equality Center at the University of Oklahoma, lamenting about how a woman I knew wasn’t seeking advice and career direction from their boss as much as their male counterpart which resulted in their counterpart getting sponsorship for a job instead of her. Kathy suggested that next time I should take this female out for coffee and take more responsibility in the situation. She’s exactly right. We have to do more as leaders if we want to see change instead of just relying on women to fend for themselves in an environment that isn’t always conducive to promoting women.
Even though I’ve had some incredible sponsors in my career, I am not the poster child for sponsoring women in theirs and have made a goal for myself to change this. Let’s make a 2018 resolution together to become better sponsors. Here are a few ways we can make that happen:
1. Meet with other women regularly to find out their interests, goals, and strengths. Read between the lines and think critically about opportunities that they may not have even considered themselves.
2. When appropriate, work with them on the best resumes and talking points possible. Build them up with both encouragement and leadership.
3. Become a match maker. When you find out someone is interested in a career path and you have connections – use them. Take a gamble and expend that political capital for good.
4. Suggest jobs that they may not consider themselves qualified for and help them find an in with that company. Be willing to make calls and send emails on their behalf.
5. Talk up your fellow females to others. Be their biggest fans.
Here’s to making 2018 a success by helping others find success!