Even if you didn't watch the presidential debate on Tuesday, I'm sure you're now familiar with Mitt Romney's phrase, "binders full of women." He used it describe the efforts he supposedly made to recruit women for his cabinet when he was governor of Massachusetts. The phrase quickly went viral, giving birth to Tumblr parodies, a Facebook fan page and tons of hilarious tweets like this one: "Most men with binders full of women are called serial killers."
It's hard not to find his comment irritating, especially in light of later reports spelling out that it was actually women's groups that presented binders of qualified women to Romney, worried that women would be shut out. And yet there was another comment, a little bit ahead of the binder remark, that bugged me even more.
Here's a recap of Romney's remarks, just for reference:
I had the chance to pull together a cabinet, and all the applicants seemed to be men. And I -- I went to my staff, and I said, 'How come all the people for these jobs are -- are all men?' They said 'Well, these are the people that have the qualifications.' And I said, 'Gosh, can't we find some women who are also qualified?' And so we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become member s of our cabinet. I went to a number of women's groups and said, 'Can you help us find folks?' and they brought us whole binders full of women.
The remark that really annoyed me? It's when Romney asked, "Can't we find women who are also qualified?" Why wouldn't Romney, as a leader, already be aware of the fact that smart, qualified women are out there? That's what you do when you're in a leadership position -- you stay informed about the talented players in your professional universe, you keep tabs on them, you even court them, and sometimes you take them to lunch. But all the smart, qualified women were clearly invisible to a guy like Romney. He hadn't been watching for them or paying attention.
Thankfully, those women's groups in Massachusetts were extremely proactive and it paid off, because Romney did appoint more women than usual to his cabinet. We need more proactivity like that.
But individually, we also have to take the bull by the horns and help ourselves lose invisible status. One way to do that is by acquiring professional sponsors. Sponsors are somewhat like mentors, but rather than just offering advice, they open doors professionally for you. According to a study published in Harvard Business Review, men are more likely to have sponsors than women -- and sponsors lead to more job opportunities than mentors. So have mentors if you want, but also get yourself some sponsors.
You can't wait for a sponsor to find you. That sometimes happens, but don't just sit there hoping for it. Instead, through some reconnaissance, you need to find a potential sponsor and then adopt the person. It may be someone you already know but it could also be someone you seek out at a networking event. Introduce yourself and comment on his or her work -- a speech the person gave recently, for instance. Give your card. If the moment seems right, ask if it would be possible to have an exploratory interview. Later on, send the person a link to an article that touches on something you two talked about. Ask his or her opinion. Develop semi-regular contact, but without seeming like a damn stalker! Share news of your professional success. And if an opportunity arises where this person could be a door opener, making an introduction for you (even just an email intro), ask for his or her help. Don't be shy. Guys do this all the time. It's why they end up in the room and not just in the binder.
And be grateful. Send a written thank you note. Maybe even a nice bottle of Bordeaux.
Kate White is a world-renowned bestselling author, career expert, motivational speaker, and consultant to Hearst magazines. Longtime Editor-in-Chief of Cosmo, her newest book, I Shouldn't Be Telling You This: Success Secrets Every Gutsy Girl Should Know, is on sale now.