Get a Sponsor, Get One Soon

get a sponsor get one soon the way women work mentors coaches sponsorsUntil recently, not much has been written about the difference in promotion rates for men and women, and the key reasons why.

But if we step back and look at the organizational landscape, we can seen the key reason very clearly: of all career-minded men and women who are trying to get ahead, more men than women have a sponsor at work.

The Difference Between Mentors, Sponsors & Coaches

For many years, working women have been told they need to have a mentor, and they have dutifully responded by seeking a mentor on their own, often someone outside of their organization. Some experts have even advised having a whole network of mentors (How to Be a Smart Protégé, Wall Street Journal, Aug 17, 2009 and A New Approach to Mentoring, Wall Street Journal, Sept 22, 2008).

Based on all of this advice, women have sought out one or several people they respect: those with whom they get along, from whom they could receive emotional support and feedback, and who they saw as a role model.

While these sorts of mentors are helpful, and while I would of course encourage you to have mentors, having a mentor(s) is not a substitute for having a sponsor at work.

You might be saying, mentor, sponsor – what’s the difference? Or you may think, “Now I need to have *something else* to get ahead?”

Yes, it’s true. And even more:

Having a sponsor is more important than having a mentor.

Mentors are those with whom you have good chemistry, those who help you gain insights about yourself and who hopefully give you good career advice. In contrast, a sponsor works with you to identify the right next move and helps you to get it.

There is even a third sort of player that can help your career: a coach. To boil it down: a coach will tell you “how” to do it, a mentor will tell you “why” to do it, and a sponsor will help you get it.

A coach will tell you “how” to do it, a mentor will tell you “why” to do it, and a sponsor will help you get it.

In professional life and career management, a key question I often ask myself and those I coach is, “Do you understand the difference between activity and results?”

Sometimes working with a mentor results in a lot good activity but does not lead to results. The purpose of a sponsor is to get results.

Successful working women know that promotions are not predicated on performance alone, and plum assignments don’t always go to the “most deserving” (however this term is defined). Successful business women also know that although both mentors and sponsors are key components of their career strategy, at their current place of employment, it is a sponsor who can make the difference between stagnation and progress.


According to Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women in the Sept 2010 issue of Harvard Business Review, a sponsor is a senior manager with influence at your company who has the ability to get their sponsored employee considered for promising opportunities, challenging assignments, and promotions. Please note: the critical distinguishing characteristics of a sponsor are: seniority, influence, and power. This is not some random person you ask to help you, and not the person with whom you can just open up to brainstorm or air thoughts and frustrations.

In When Mentoring Goes Bad, we read how “most young managers view having a mentor as their ticket to the big leagues — to greater visibility, exciting assignments, and big promotions.” I have worked with and observed many women who share this sentiment. But, the ticket to the big leagues doesn’t come from a mentor, rather, its provided by a sponsor.

During the late 1990s during my time at Bank of America, I fondly remember one of my early sponsors, Doug Cruickshanks, who at the time was the President of the Virginia Bank. Doug helped open many doors for me by giving me challenging assignments that often culminated in presentations to the highest levels of executive management thereby giving me exposure to key decisions makers who could influence my career.


Some leading-edge organizations create formal sponsorship programs aimed at facilitating career assignments for high-potential employees. If your organization does not have such a program or you have not been tapped to be a part of such a program, you can identify your own sponsor.  

But before you seek one out and ask them to help you, you need to ask yourself 4 questions:

  1. Am I a strong performer who consistently works on her professional development and shows initiative at work and in taking on new assignments?
  2. Am I well regarded as someone who makes significant contributions to my organization?
  3. Am I known by this potential sponsor and well thought of by them? (Ways to become known include volunteering to work on projects, committees, initiatives and/or community activities that the potential sponsor is leading, invested in, and feels passionately about.)
  4. Do I generally know how I’d like my career to develop and what sorts of future roles I’d like to take, and do I know these clearly enough so that I may articulate them to my potential sponsor?

If you can answer yes to all of the above, then you can (on your own or through a mentor) seek out a senior leader at your organization or institution with the power and influence to serve as your sponsor to help you advance your career.

If you cannot answer yes to all 4 questions, go back and work on them. Do not approach a potential sponsor until you can.

How to Approach a Potential Sponsor

When you are ready to approach someone, you will want to set up a time to meet with this person to formally ask them to be your sponsor. You will need to be very clear about what you’d like to get out of the relationship, and you will need to be direct in asking them if they would be willing to commit to helping you.

Be prepared to express your openness to taking on assignments that he/she may bring to your attention, your intent to perform at the highest level in every situation, and your commitment to a future at the company. Be sure to give this person the opportunity to deny your request. If they cannot be fully committed to helping you, or if they do not see your potential in the same way that you do, then they are not the right sponsor for you.

In the past, employees (especially women) were discouraged from being so assertive and open in managing their careers, and they were counseled against “riding a senior manager’s coat tails.” You will not be riding on anyone’s coattails. You are relying on your own knowledge, skills, and connections to create conditions that are most conducive to the achievement of your own career goals.

The path to career success is paved by sponsors. Do you have one?