December 2019 | 

To Advance, Women Leaders Need Sponsors, Not More Mentors

To Advance, Women Leaders Need Sponsors, Not More Mentors

It’s a stubborn fact of business life that the higher up you go on the corporate ladder, the fewer women you will find in positions of power and influence. According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, fewer than 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies were led by female CEOs in 2016. But women filled 52 percent of management, professional, and related positions.

“There are several reasons why women as a whole continue to lag behind men when it comes to reaching the top at work,” says Wharton Management professor Nancy Rothbard. One is whether women have a mentor or a sponsor. Rothbard describes a sponsor as “a senior-level champion who believes in your potential and is willing to advocate for you to receive that next raise, stretch assignment, or promotion.” A mentor, on the other hand, is a person who gives you advice about how to get ahead.

While both are important, it’s interesting to note that women tend to be over-mentored but under-sponsored. But as more companies stop formal sponsorship programs, how can women reverse this trend? Rothbard devotes a session in the Women’s Executive Leadership: Business Strategies for Success program on a proactive approach to becoming the type of executive that others want to sponsor and not just mentor.

She shares five key characteristics:

  1. Dependability: “Be known as the person others can count on when it comes to delivering results.”
  2. Responsibility: “Don’t constantly wait for other people to give you guidance on what to do next. Be self directed.”
  3. Trustworthiness: “Be someone who can be absolutely trusted and discreet with sensitive information.”
  4. Value: “Develop a skill set that brings different perspectives and additional value to your sponsor.”
  5. Better questions: “Knowing what questions to ask and how to ask them can be critical to your professional advancement.”

“This is how you can get recognized as high-potential material within your organization,” says Rothbard. But the program that she directs includes much more advice, grounded in the latest research, on developing greater leadership and leadership presence. That includes sessions on critical skills such as negotiations, emotional intelligence, and finance, as well as executive coaching throughout the week.

That made a difference for Anna Sajan, director of medical affairs operations at Endo Pharmaceuticals. “The program was flawless,” she says. “Women’s Executive Leadership is another tool that I have to armor myself for future growth. I learned a number of lessons, some prominent and some more subtle, that will help me navigate in the company and progress in my leadership roles.”