Sponsors? Wait, I have heard of mentors, but sponsors? What is that and why do I need one?
This is a common response that I get whenever I counsel corporate Latinas and other women executives about the need to have a sponsor. I, like them, was not aware of the concept of a “sponsor” in corporate America until actually quite recently when I was working at a major Fortune 100 company and someone made a reference to my “sponsor”. At that point, I knew that the colleague was referring to another high level executive that I had the fortune of developing a good relationship with and who I knew had made some phone calls on my behalf and had recommended me for some high visibility projects. I thought that was quite nice on his part and obviously I had communicated my gratitude, but it wasn’t until my colleague referred to him as my “sponsor” that I actually started to think about this issue. Of course, I had a mentor, but my mentor had never made any phone calls on my behalf ( at least not that I knew of ) or volunteered me to work on a major project. For the most part they were not in a position to do so or more likely that simply was not their role. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that my mentor was not hugely important- she was- but the sponsor was different.
Going back to mentors, we can all agree that in corporate America, one of the keys to success is having a mentor that can guide you to avoid the landmines inherent in any large organization. However, in 20 years of professional corporate experience, I can count the times that I have heard a Latina or any other woman of color mention the word “sponsor” to me. I have to confess that the colleague I refer to above that mentioned the “sponsor” word to me was a white male! So we can also establish that very seldom do we even hear that word and even less do we ever get any advice on how to obtain one. Yet, we know that the number one reason why Latinas and other women of color ”bleed out” of corporate America is due to lack of mentoring. Thus, the question today is what is a sponsor, why do we need it and what is the difference between a sponsor and a mentor in corporate America.
While the problem with attrition of women of color, and particularly Latinas, in corporations is quite complex, one answer may be this: Latinas and other women of color do not generally know that, in corporate America, you need to go one step extra. You need more than a mentor, you also need a SPONSOR. The two are not the same. Finding a mentor is great and you should definitely take advantage of a mentoring program if your company offers it, but getting a “sponsor” is more important to really advance.
What is the difference? A mentor is someone who has experience with the company and can give you career strategies and day-to-day advice . This is someone that hopefully you can trust in asking questions, sharing information and guidance, learning inside “scoop” and learn how to avoid political missteps Sponsors, on the other hand, do what the word says, they “sponsor” their proteges. This means that the sponsor will likely put in a good word for the protege when an opportunity arises that you may not know, they inform others about you and they “sell” your abilities to others in the organization.
While mentors are normally experienced with the company and may or may not be visible, the sponsor is almost always highly visible and influential in the company. In other words, a mentor answers your questions on how to navigate the corporate landscape, the sponsor get you there. A mentor may spend a lot of time with you educating you about the political issues in your organization, a sponsor only knows of your accomplishments and will ” sell” you to others that do not know you. Or better said, your mentor will know your innermost doubts and issues, your sponsor only knows how perfect you are! A sponsor also adds legitimacy to you as he or she puts her reputation to work for you. You normally do not spend a lot of time with a sponsor, it is not needed. You only need to make sure that your sponsor knows what you are accomplishing and that he or she feels comfortable and secure in “vouching” for you. So, now you are probably saying “ Okay- I get it- but how do I get a sponsor?”.
My advice to you is to identify a person within your organization that is respected and influential. Respected is more important that influential. Then find key opportunities to introduce yourself, get to know the potential sponsor informally and share strategic information about your accomplishments, education and goals within the company. You have to start feeling comfortable reaching across generational, gender and racial boundaries to start developing “relationships” with people that may not look like you or share anything in common on race or ethnicity. Women of color tend to stay within their “circles” when it comes to building relationships and that is fine for most purposes but in the case of your career advancement, you must learn to create “relationships’ and be comfortable with people outside of your circles.
Another way to identify and connect with a sponsor is to volunteer on projects that you know the potential sponsor is leading or is investing in. This is a subtle way to gain some visibility with that potential sponsor. Do a good job, make that person look good and you will eventually get the attention of that potential sponsor. And last, once you have built a relationship or at least you feel you are on that potential sponsor’s radar screen- do not ever let them know that you consider then a “sponsor”. People do not necessarily want to know that you had ulterior motives for building the relationship and they might take offense. Sponsorship will naturally occur provided you have built a nice relationship of respect, professionalism and you have demonstrated you can perform.
So, take that extra step and find yourself a SPONSOR! I look forward to hearing your comments and stories about this topic!
Hasta la proxima, The Corporate Latina!