This Job Promotion Brought To You By Your Sponsor

Last Updated Jan 19, 2011 12:23 AM EST

Why do women stall near the top of corporate America? Don't blame babies, says a new study from economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, published recently in Harvard Business Review. And don't blame incompetence or inexperience either. The last glass ceiling exists because of a lack of what she calls "sponsorship.”
A sponsor is not just a mentor. Rather, he or she -- but let's not kid ourselves, usually he -- is a powerful person who goes to bat for you. He facilitates stretch assignments and bangs on the table in a meeting to get you promoted. Think John McCain and Sarah Palin. Michael Bloomberg and Cathie Black. Hewlett and her research team found that men are more likely than women to have sponsors, which is a problem, since after studying thousands of people in big companies, they determined that having a sponsor boosts advancement prospects by 23 percent for men and 19 percent for women.

Of course, getting a sponsor is not as simple as calling up HR and asking for one. These are relationships that arise over time. But there are a few steps you can take to cultivate sponsorship:

  • Spread your net wide. A sponsor can be a well-connected person in your organization, but could also be a consultant who works closely with senior management, and can buzz in their ears.
  • Be open to criticism. A good sponsor wants to make you executive material -- and if you aren't currently, he should call you on it. That may even mean criticism of how you dress or do your hair. Toughen up.
  • Make life good for your sponsor. If you want your sponsor to advocate for you, you need to give him something to work with: great results, new ideas, glowing testimonials. Be loyal and use any chips you have to help your sponsor inside your organization and out.
  • Spend time together. This is, unfortunately, where many potential sponsorship relationships break down, because one-on-one time, particularly between a senior man and a junior woman after hours, has a tendency to look like an affair. But you can carve out time during the workday to meet and hash out ideas, and by behaving with integrity in all matters, lessen the likelihood of gossip.
Has a sponsor ever helped you get a promotion?

Image courtesy flickr user, trentroche