Sponsorship vs. mentorship, and the way women see work relationships

July 11, 2013

"I had assumed that people would know what I wanted to do [in my career]. But I needed to actually say it." - Gaenor Bagley, PwC, quoted in the FT

The first part of that quote is something a lot of women will probably nod their heads at. Many feel a) 'Surely it's obvious what I want, after all, here I am, beavering away for everyone to see' and b) 'It's inappropriate to articulate my desire for advancement - won't people look on me as too forward? Surely my work speaks for itself.' (It doesn't.)

The piece quoting Gaenor Bagley of consultancy PwC ran in the Financial Times this week, but as their pieces are behind a paywall, I'm writing about it here. The story is essentially about how having a sponsor, rather than a mentor, truly is the key to getting more women into leadership roles. A sponsor is someone who will advocate for you and put their own reputation on the line for you. In other words, a sponsor is someone who believes in you utterly, because otherwise they wouldn't risk their own reputation. A mentor is someone who is there to give advice and show you the ropes, but won't necessarily go to bat for you. Here's a revealing quote from the Financial Times piece - the bold highlighting is my own:

"PwC, frustrated at the lack of pro­gress made by women in reaching senior positions, decided to launch the Female Partner Sponsorship programme in 2010. The board identified 26 female partners – including Ms Bagley – who had “senior leadership potential”, in the words of Sarah Churchman, who oversees the firm’s diversity programme. They were matched with senior male executives who introduced them to their contacts and involved them in high-profile assignments. Three years later, the firm was surprised at the results: 60 per cent of the women had moved into a leadership role, such as joining the executive board, or were running a business unit; 90 per cent had been promoted." 

Clearly there aren't nearly enough senior women to act as sponsors to those lower down in an organization, so in most cases, if you want to sponsor, you'll be seeking out a man. The piece also quotes Sylvia Ann Hewlett of the Center for Talent Innovation. She has a book coming out in a couple of months with an unequivocal title - Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor. Hewlett brings up the way women view relationships and how that can hamper us at work. Women tend to see work relationships as friendships, not something to be 'used' for advancement. This applies with networking too - a lot of women express discomfort with or disdain for the idea of networking because it seems icky to them - too transactional, a bit dirty. Women are, in general, very 'relational' people, thanks to millennia of looking after others. Men don't see a problem with having a work friendship and also using it to help them succeed.

Obviously, more women need to a) articulate what they want from their career to someone higher up the food chain at work and b) start to see relationships at the office as something that can help us succeed, and not judge other women who are already playing that game.

Finally, this talk of sponsorship is all very well for people who work in organizations, but what if, like me, your work on your own? I'd be very interested to hear from anyone who's an entrepreneurial type or freelancer about how they have sought and found mentors or sponsors. Reply in the comments below or shoot me an email at ashley [at] thebroadexperience dot com.