04/25/2012 04:44 pm ET Updated Jun 25, 2012

Are Mentors Getting in the Way of Your Success?

All Mentoring is Not Created Equal.

We all know the disappointing statistics of women in the workplace: 10% of Fortune 500 companies have no women serving on their boards, only 12 Fortune 500 companies are run by women and females still only make 77.5 cents on every dollar that a man makes.

To shift this culture, the discussion has focused on the importance of mentors who can help young women eventually elevate to the ranks of other high-powered women; the ones who have found their way to the board rooms. This focus is valid as research done by Catalyst, a New York-based nonprofit that researches women and business issues, found that mentoring is significantly connected to career-related success. However, there is a major role missing if we want to help women break the cycle of falling out of the C-Suite pipeline.

Stuck in the middle

In 2008, Catalyst did a survey of 4,000 high-potential graduates from top MBA programs worldwide, revealing that women occupy lower-level management positions and experience significantly less career satisfaction. Meanwhile, more of those women reported having mentors.

So if women understand and are engaged in mentoring relationships, why are they not scaling the ranks? Why are the statistics of female success still mediocre?

Sponsors vs. Mentors

One answer lies in the role of the sponsor, which is different than that of the mentor. Where a mentor provides informal fellowship and advice, the sponsor truly advocates for their sponsee, campaigning for her behind the scenes. Sponsors are typically top executives who have the power and pull to be her champion, ensuring that she plays a visible and active role in the organization.

Sponsors put their reputation on the line for the woman's success. A sponsor actively puts skin in the game for her. Being associated with a sponsor in this nature not only signifies credibility but also positively affects the sponsee's value to the company in the perception of decision makers. Having an individual of influence who is there to give tough inter-company feedback and continual support will give her the professional boost missing from the average mentoring relationship.

In 2011, Catalyst released their annual consensus of Fortune 500 female executives, revealing few significant increases for women at the top. In fact from 2010 to 2011, there was a .3% decrease in women holding executive officer positions and a .1% decrease in executive officer top earner positions -- a trajectory we'd hope would be positive remains significantly unchanged and bordering on regression. Women's stagnation on the corporate ladder is a serious issue, and a focus on sponsorship within the mentoring framework will help this problem. When a lofty-ranking executive is willing to sponsor a high-potential employee, the sponsee is likely to be more self-assured going forward -- giving her the confidence to go after that top role.

We know that more women are needed in the top echelons of executive management, and a focus on sponsorship in conjunction with mentoring is just the way to address this need. If professional women will take the time to build a network of mentors and sponsors early in their careers, there will be a group of individuals there to champion their success at every stage.

As women, we have to be cautious of falling into the trap of "over-mentored and under-sponsored." While mentoring is crucial to our success, finding a sponsor who will advocate your advancement is key.
Maxie McCoy is a regular contributor for the Levo League. As a Levo Leader, she is passionate about great content for young professionals. She is the co-writer of Less Work More Money and has experience hosting for Fox Sports Southwest. Maxie graduated Lehigh University with a BA in Journalism and Masters in American Studies. She currently resides in San Francisco and is the director of programs & development for a preeminent nonprofit. Follow her @maxiemccoy