THE BLOG
04/25/2016 09:02 am ET Updated Apr 25, 2017

Who You Know Matters as Much as What You Know -- Women Can Advance Their Career Through Sponsorship

Over the last several weeks, I have had the opportunity to speak at several conferences and client organizations with one common request: to address what really drives women's career growth and advancement. While we all know that there is no single "quick fix" that will instantly create gender-balanced leadership, one important factor that facilitates better balance is providing sponsorship opportunities for your top female talent.

In SHAMBAUGH's work with talented female leaders, we've found that while high-potential women generally have strong and supportive professional relationships, these tend to fall under the category of mentors -- advisors who serve as role models, providing perspective and constructive criticism. But when it comes to understanding the importance of developing relationships with potential sponsors -- key high-level decision-makers who are able to go beyond mentoring to advocate on women's behalf in relation to strategic opportunities and advancement -- female leaders still tend to shortchange themselves.

Early in my career, like many women, I undervalued the importance of professional relationships and connections, believing that getting ahead was solely based on hard work, long hours, and credentials. Unfortunately, research has shown that close to 80 percent of today's female leaders and managers still believe this fallacy. The truth is something that men have long known -- that who you know matters at least as much as what you know. In my recent book Make Room For Her, I reported on Catalyst research that shows 83 percent of men understand that getting ahead is largely based on their relational capital, not just on job skills or competence level. Career growth and advancement is about making connections with key decision-makers who can help facilitate your promotion, and then tapping on these relationships for sponsorship support.

SHAMBAUGH has also found evidence that in some cases, women's mentor relationships fail to create the ROI that they need or are looking for when it comes to gaining visibility and landing the types of jobs that will accelerate their careers. Lacking an influential sponsor who can supercharge a woman's career path can be problematic on a number of levels. Without a strong sponsor to leverage his or her influence, women can miss out on access to essential networks, exposure to new roles, and opportunities to take on key assignments that would showcase their leadership ability.

With all of this in mind, think about how you got your career to where it is today. Do you have a sponsor, or do you know someone who could be a potential sponsor for you? Have you played a part in someone else's promotion or advancement? Does your company offer a formal mentoring or sponsorship program for women managers and leaders?

There are a number of steps that organizations can take to ensure that their female leaders have effective sponsorship opportunities:

• Make a business case. Forward-thinking organizations should identify and codify a clear business case that supports sponsorship -- and then hold all of their leaders responsible for upholding it. This business case could link to marketplace shifts and the importance of tapping into the perspective of women, or the retention of top talent and the importance of gender-balanced leadership, for example.

• Create a sponsorship culture. It's important that organizations create a culture that supports a "pay it forward" mindset -- one where sponsorship is part of what all leaders do as part of their primary responsibilities.

• Engage men. Companies can support men being champions of change. As a starting point, work on developing specific programs and opportunities for men to sponsor talented high-potential female leaders.

• Provide coaching and training for sponsors. Organizations should help all managers and leaders understand the difference between a mentor and a sponsor, emphasizing the importance of providing sponsorship opportunities for top women. One way to facilitate this goal is to provide potential sponsors with a tool kit that outlines important skills, behaviors, and best practices for being an effective sponsor.

Women can also play a role when it comes to preparing and leveraging potential sponsorship relationships:

• Invest in relational capital. It is crucial to cultivate and build relationships with high-level decision-makers who can take an active role in helping you to advance. To do so, you need to move beyond mentoring relationships. While the advising and role modeling that mentors provide is important, it's crucial to enhance mentoring with sponsorship. To this end, seek a broad network of people who can help you actually gain support and cooperation for your specific goals and objectives related to advancement.

• Target decision makers. To help distinguish the difference between mentors and sponsors, you should aim to build relationships with key decision-makers who can help you get promoted, not just with colleagues who can help you do your current job well. This usually means thinking both broader and bigger. Get out of your comfort zone and intentionally cultivate relationships with senior-level leaders specifically for the purpose of career advancement.

• Take ownership. Identify career goals and aspirations that you can share with your sponsor. Be clear in what you are looking for in the sponsored relationship. Think about your brand--your unique value proposition. Be prepared to describe that in detail when you first meet your sponsor, who will be better able to help support you by understanding your key strengths and the value you bring to others -- and to the company.

• Find out what success looks like to your sponsor. Be proactive in seeking ways that you can be of value to someone who sponsors you. Do your homework in advance, using research to find out what your sponsor values. Then when you make your request, you can connect it directly to how it would help make not just you, but also your sponsor, more successful.

• Let your sponsor see you in action. When building the relationship with your sponsor, seek ways for him or her to experience your leadership potential firsthand. By doing so, you can help earn your sponsor's respect and trust, as well as provide your sponsor with positive stories to share about you when recommending you to other executives for key assignments.

Rebecca Shambaugh is author of the best-selling books It's Not a Glass Ceiling, It's a Sticky Floor, Leadership Secrets of Hillary Clinton, Make Room for Her: Why Companies Need an Integrated Leadership Model to Achieve Extraordinary Results.

Follow Rebecca Shambaugh on Twitter: www.twitter.com/beckyshambaugh