For years, women have been told, “If you want to be successful, you need to have a mentor; if you want to support the next generation, you need to mentor them.” Mentorship programs were going to be the answer to closing the gender gap in the workplace. Women got mentors for themselves and started mentoring others. Hours were invested in sharing stories and giving advice. Companies created formal mentorship programs, with contracts and processes to help people find the perfect match, track progress and hold each other accountable.
Mentorship is a valuable tool: It helps people to feel supported, learn new things, connect and feel more engaged at work. But unfortunately, it hasn’t been successful at accelerating women into leadership positions.
It turns out that women are overly mentored (registration required), and what they really need is to be sponsored. Women are getting a lot of advice and are being prepared for their next opportunity. What they actually need is to have someone in their corner advocating for their next move, pushing them into riskier situations and supporting them to learn and figure it out as they go.
Here’s where it gets tricky. In our everyday language, we use the word “mentor” interchangeably to describe those doing either sponsorship or mentorship. And by default, women are naturally mentored (given advice) and men are naturally sponsored (given opportunities).
If you want to accelerate more women into leadership positions, I believe the way forward is through sponsorship, not mentorship. This sounds great in theory, but you might be wondering how to actually implement this in your organization.
For sponsorship to truly work, there can’t be a sign-up sheet. People don’t naturally tap you on the shoulder and say, “Mary, I would like to sponsor you; will you be my protégé?” There are no contracts, and there isn’t a handbook. The best way for this to happen is to create a culture where it can happen organically.
Sponsorship is a two-way street. Both people end up benefiting, and both people’s reputations are on the line. You can force people to give advice, but you can’t force people to align their reputation with someone else’s. For sponsorship to really work, that’s what needs to happen. A senior person needs to put their reputation on the line and offer an opportunity to a more junior person.
It’s not easy, but it’s absolutely possible to implement this in an organization. The key is to just get started, and starting at the top is the best place to start.
Most people still don’t really understand the difference between mentorship and sponsorship. The most important thing you can remember is that mentoring is about giving advice and preparing the person for the opportunity. Sponsorship is about giving the opportunity, allowing the person to learn as they go and being there to support them. Because of unconscious bias and gender stereotypes that show up at work, women by default tend to be prepared (mentored), and men tend to be thrown into the situation to learn (sponsored).
Educating the senior leadership team about these gender biases and what they mean for mentorship and sponsorship is a great first step.
As mentioned, for sponsorship to truly work, the senior person needs to align their reputation with the junior person. This can’t be done out of obligation; it needs to be because they truly believe in the junior person’s potential. The challenge is that the senior leadership team may not know many women or people with diverse backgrounds — because the reality today is that most organizations have fewer women in leadership positions at every single level. In order to overcome this, ask your leadership team, “What is it going to take for you to find someone who is different than you and get to know them enough so that you feel comfortable aligning your reputation with theirs?”
This is going to challenge your leadership team to get out of their comfort zones and to connect with new people; these people may be a few levels down from them, and that’s OK. It’s not a supply problem. The talent is there; you just might have to be a bit more intentional in order to see it.
Once you’ve overcome this hurdle, keep this on your agenda, and challenge your team to check in on their progress. It might take some time, but win-win relationships will form, leading to women and people with diverse backgrounds being given opportunities to learn on the job and get the exposure they need to move to the next level of leadership.