Sponsorship, by definition, is career advocacy provided to a subordinate by a senior-level executive (some say C-level is required). It is a relationship built on trust, respect, and mutual benefit. Executive sponsorship is proven to accelerate leadership advancement for both men and women. The problem lies in the fact that sponsorship is exceedingly rare; what may seem like mythical to those seeking it.

Ever since Catalyst published their 2011 survey Sponsoring Women to Success, sponsorship has been part of the holy grail of women’s leadership advancement. When women who attended a Smith College Executive Education program were surveyed about requirements for career advancement, 33% cited sponsorship as a necessity for advancement. However, sponsorship continues to be elusive. A 2010 survey by Harvard Business Review found that only 19% of men had sponsors while only 13% of women did.

Fairygodboss found that 64 companies report having a formal mentoring program; only 11 report having a formal sponsorship program. This is because sponsorship is traditionally an informal, organic process, not a piece of a formal diversity program. Successful sponsorships occur naturally, and can’t be forced as the result of an HR initiative or company policy.

What’s a woman to do? 

When surveyed, Smith College Executive Education alumnae cited sponsorship, opportunity, experience, and exposure as the top critical to advancement. Where sponsorship usually comes from outside the individual – a relationship built over time via personal or professional networks, or from one of those rare formal programs, the drive and ability to leverage opportunities, build experience, and gain exposure rest with women themselves.

So instead of waiting around for a sponsor to come knocking on your door, you can step up, leverage opportunities, and capitalize on a powerful personal brand.

Here are three tips to get you what we call “sponsor-ready”:

#1 What’s the buzz?

Be on top of what’s happening at your company:

  • Read your firm’s annual report to learn about initiatives
  • Attend company-wide webinars and informational meetings
  • Look at your firm’s job listings regularly

#2 Raise your hand!

Consider saying YES to that next big opportunity.

  • Put yourself forward for opportunities
  • When offered an opportunity, say yes
  • Let others know your goals and ask for their support

#3 Refine and promote your brand.

Exposure is 60% of the career success P.I.E*; image is 30% and performance is only 10%:

  • Align your brand with the qualities you see demonstrated at the top of your company
  • Know who you are and how you want to be perceived, and make it so
  • Toot your own horn and get your allies to do it, too

You may or may not land a sponsor, but you will definitely give your career a boost and increase your chances of being noticed by someone who may make a difference in your career trajectory.


*From Coleman, H Empowering Yourself, The Organizational Game Revealed (April, 1966)

Recent Posts