Women’s Networks Not Enough – Get a Sponsor!

There’s no doubt that female networks connect women, nourish career advancement, provide learning opportunities, boost confidence and generally provide much needed support and encouragement.

But then what?

We need more women in positions of senior leadership to work collaboratively with men, influence strategy and make important decisions. Networking with other women isn’t enough to achieve this.

What works in some companies is matching high potential women employees with  sponsors in senior level positions.

A sponsor is more than a mentor. Sponsors make introductions to the right people, facilitate career moves and guide you through the unwritten rules of organizational life.

According to research by the Center for Work-Life Policy as part of their “On-Ramps and Off-Ramps Revisited” study (to be published in the June Harvard Business Review), 89 percent of highly qualified women don’t have a sponsor and 68 percent lack mentors.

If you are serious about breaking through into the senior ranks of your organization you would be smart to continue building your networks, but also cultivate a sponsor.

To get a sponsor, you either need to take matters into your own hands and establish a sponsor relationship with a senior executive in your organization;  or influence your company to become a “matchmaker” and pair senior executives with high potential women as part of your talent management system.

Some forward thinking companies are already taking steps to facilitate this type of sponsor relationship.

American Express has created “Women in the Pipeline and at the Top.” With full support from CEO Ken Chenault, the program aims to identify and develop women with the potential to reach the top two levels and give them more opportunities to interact and get exposure to the executive team.

Deloitte’s “Leading to WIN” program, prepares high-potential women for leadership positions over the course of 18 months. In addition to one-on-one coaching, participants attend leadership meetings to give them direct exposure to executives and potential sponsors.

Cisco’s “Inclusive Advocacy Program”, pairs the company’s highest potential diverse talent — both men and women — with a VP or SVP “advocate” in a different function and different geography over a nine-month period.

What is your organization doing to promote this type of strategic matchmaking? How can you develop sponsor relationships and get the exposure you need to break through to the top? I’d love to hear your comments.