Forget mentors -- sponsors can help you soar at work

Having a sponsor at work, especially for women, can increase the chance of a younger manager's  career success.

Story highlights

  • Instead of mentors, women and men should seek sponsors in the workplace
  • Having someone vouch for you can extend your eyes and ears in the company
  • Women with sponsors have had success in breaking through the glass ceiling
It can be especially tough for female managers to rise to executive positions at many large companies because of the unexpected hurdles. Among Fortune 500 companies, women make up just 2.4 percent of chief executives despite making up 46.3 percent of the labor force. In other words, the glass ceiling still exists.
But a recent report by the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force, a private-sector task force, published in the Harvard Business Review offers new food for thought: Instead of mentors, women (and men) should have sponsors in the workplace. Researchers point out that simply seeking advice from mentors is not enough, and say it takes a lot more to advance your career. Here's what you need to know about the benefits of having a sponsor:
Famous politicians use the sponsor approach
Being taken under someone's wing has resulted in much success for those in the political arena. Similar to what presidential candidates do for lesser known vice presidential candidates, vouching for someone publicly can have a profound effect on that person's career.
Women underestimate the need for sponsors
Having someone publicly put their reputation on the line to help you get to a higher level is something most women don't see a need for, according to the research findings. Almost 80 percent reported that hard work and long hours -- not connections -- were responsible for their advancement.
Male-female sponsorship can send the wrong message
Finding sponsors can be especially difficult for women because of the reluctance to be sponsored by an older male executive in the company, the report says. Both men and women are skittish about having that kind of relationship because outsiders may see an older, more senior male executive with a younger manager-level woman as insinuating a romantic relationship. Additionally, the lack of family constraints allows men to form more valuable connections, according to findings. In fact, 60 percent of employed women still do 75 percent of the housework and take on most of the child care.
Large U.S. companies believe in the sponsor concept
On the other hand, companies that were part of the study, such as Deloitte, Intel, Time Warner and Morgan Stanley, are working on new measures to help managers develop sponsorship networks, according to the report. Programs such as Deloitte's Leading to Win, Cisco's Inclusive Advocacy and Intel's Extending Our Research are helping to identify sponsorship opportunities for top female managers.
How having a sponsor can help
As a manager, you can't be at every company meeting or gathering. Have someone who is well-respected in the company publicly vouch for you can extend your eyes and ears in the company. Since your success is also in your sponsor's best interest, it's easy to get valuable advice. While having a sponsor who is publicly on your side is an important career boost, it can be difficult to find a sponsor. The recession has strained many workplace relationships, making many would-be mentors hesitant to take on a protégé, the report points out.
Maintaining a sponsor relationship is worth the effort
According to the report, women who have managed to find sponsors have had significantly more success in breaking through the glass ceiling to the upper rungs of a company. For example, in the sponsorship program that was launched at American Express, 10 out of 20 female participants landed a higher role within the year. The "Sponsor Effect" study found that it's important for qualified candidates to build political allies within the company and seek both inspiration and protection from upper management.