Mentoring’s often seen as a quick fix for a woman’s career. Stuck in a rut? Get a mentor. Trying to break into a male dominated field? Get a mentor. Need a key platform for your organisation’s gender diversity efforts? Implement a mentoring program for women.
Mentors can offer some great advice and may even help guide some of your most important career decisions, but even the best mentor — if he or she is doing their job correctly — can only take you so far. Their job is to guide you, not to decide for you. They’re there to offer wisdom, support and a range of possible solutions for a challenge you might be dealing with.
A sponsor, on the other hand, can offer direct access to a new opportunity.
Over the years, I’ve interviewed female board directors and women in executive positions who credit much of what they’ve achieved to the sponsors they’ve acquired along the way. Their ‘sponsors’ have been women or men (but usually men) who have put their own reputations on the line in order to directly support them in achieving a significant career first: by suggesting them for a board, providing a recommendation for a promotion, introducing their work or business to a client.
These women know the power of having mentors AND sponsors who can aid and support their careers, and appreciate why these two types of relationships are distinct from each other and must therefore be managed in different ways.
I asked two such female directors what sponsors can do for a woman’s career that a mentor can not, and what we can all do to attract the support of sponsors.
Michelle Tredenick, a former NAB and MLC executive who currently sits on the boards of the Bank of Queensland, St Andrews Health and IAG & NRMA Corporate Superannuation, has enjoyed the support of both mentors and sponsors during her career. She says that while mentors have provided an external source of counsel and differing viewpoints on issues she’s been dealing with, sponsors have offered a hand up the leadership ladder. They’ve helped her acquire new roles, recommended her for jobs and offered the ‘breaks’ she’s needed to progress her career.
“Good sponsors want to see people succeed and delight in giving someone a hand up the ladder,” she says. “Generally they are leaders of people of influence in their field. They are also well connected, not just in their own peer circles but in many different ways, so they understand where talent is and have good relationships at all levels.”
Kirstin Ferguson, who holds board positions with Thiess, Hyne & Son, SunWater and the Queensland Theatre Company, says the sponsors she’s worked with have been “proactive” in supporting her career, compared to the more “reactive” support a mentor offers.
“[Mentors] provide support and guidance to the issues that a mentee seeks assistance with. It’s largely up to the mentee to drive the relationship,” she says. “On the other hand, a sponsor will take a more proactive role through canvassing their networks for opportunities or responding to requests for reference checks or recommendations. It is largely in the hands of the sponsor to drive the level of activity being pursued.”
That means you really have to ‘earn’ the help of a sponsor. It’s difficult to approach somebody with a request to sponsor you, like you might with a mentor. If an influential person is going to sponsor you, they need to know you and your work well enough to justify putting their own reputation on the line in support of you.
‘Earning’ a sponsor will take time, hard work and diligence, according to Kirstin. Those you’re working with need to be able to trust you can deliver, meaning the credibility and reputation you can develop is essential. But she also notes that a great mentor could also become a sponsor, as long as the mentee ensures the relationship is successful and demonstrates the value they can personally add. She says she’s personally turned a number of mentors into sponsors by asking plenty of questions, ensuring they’re aware of the issues she was dealing with and how she was successfully tackling them, and showing enthusiasm for the relationship — without ever holding an expectation the mentor would ultimately become a sponsor.
Michelle agrees attracting a sponsor comes with hard work but adds it’s also a matter of getting noticed. “Sponsors notice talent and people that can be developed,” she says. “Sponsors look out for this and great sponsor will often have networks of talented people they help. It reflects well on them as well.”
The concept of sponsorship’s well and truly entrenched at the executive level for women. But there’s no reason to stop such positive effects trickling down, nor anything standing in the way of women of all career levels being open to the support of a sponsor. So work hard, retain a stellar reputation and keep an eye out for those who could potentially help and you may just earn the support of one.
And if you have the influence and networks yourself, consider sponsoring those women coming up behind you.