Women, If You’ve Got a Sponsor, Use Them!

July 7, 2015 Tammy Heermann

Use Your SponsorJust this week I was on a call debriefing progress on a female sponsorship initiative.  The program organizers were shocked to hear that a handful of the women in the high profile program were not engaged in the process.  Some hadn’t even made it past their introductory meeting (much to the busy sponsors’ chagrins). 

Imagine you were identified for this opportunity.  Maybe you even applied for a high profile sponsorship program and were crossing your fingers that you would be selected for this once in a lifetime opportunity.  Let’s say you did get selected.  How amazing! A handpicked, perfectly matched sponsor is now waiting at your doorstep to leverage for a period of time.  Would you make time for this career changing opportunity? 

One of the most cited pieces of work in gender diversity is the Catalyst study on sponsorship.  The study found that good sponsors can supercharge a woman’s career by providing access to essential networks, creating profile for achievements at the senior-level, and making recommendations for key assignments.  Because women can be penalized for self-promoting behaviors, having a sponsor to speak up on their behalf can help combat this challenge.

In response many organizations and advocacy groups are creating opportunities for females to create sponsorship relationships.  They are supporting connections through both formal and informal ways for high potentials and key talent at pivotal transition points.

It’s frustrating when women don’t show up because all too often organizations themselves are blamed for not providing opportunities for women.  Sometimes the sponsors are blamed for not actively advocating or making the time they promised to.  But in more cases than I’d like to admit, the women themselves are perpetuating the problem by not leveraging opportunities that are right in front of their face.

I help organizations and women’s advocacy groups set up sponsorship programs and see this phenomenon all too often.  Women are selected among many deserving candidates and then not showing up.  And the problem so it would seem, is not ‘fit’.  That would be an easy fix.  No, it’s that the women are not holding up their end of the bargain.  If you are a sponsor or a protégé see if you recognize one of these challenges. 

“The idea of having a sponsor seemed important and exciting, but I’m struggling to find time for it.” 

We’re talking about a few hours over the course of a year.  If you can’t make the time to connect then you really have lost perspective.  Sponsorship is earned.  A sponsor agrees to not only offer their time but also their own reputation to advocate on your behalf.  If time is your excuse, think about it this way.  By not reaching out and making time you are damaging your own credibility.  You are also affecting the brand of the program and the experience of those who will come after you.  Sponsors will not continue to give their time when they have been burned repeatedly.

“I’ve tried many times and the meetings keep getting cancelled”. 

Connecting with a busy executive can be challenging.  But I guarantee you’re not the only appointment that got moved that week.  You are responsible for driving progress.  Get on the right side of their assistant and keep getting meetings in the calendar.  Be assertive and push through.  Don’t take it personally; they’re not avoiding you.  Remind them how grateful you are for their time and how much you are getting out of the time spent with them.

“I get nervous and don’t know how to make the most of our conversations.” 

If you’re introverted or new to these types of meetings, it can be intimidating at first.  Remember the basics.  People are people.  The first conversation is about getting to know each other.  Everyone likes to be asked about their leadership journey and their areas of expertise.  The next meeting is about clarifying concrete goals and expectations for what you can learn from one another.  The subsequent meetings are there to talk through progress on the goals, share successes, and think through challenges encountered.  Do not wing it. You have to come prepared to give and get value.

If you’re working toward a sponsorship relationship or are lucky enough to be chosen to participate in a formal program, please leverage the opportunity.  A little planning to make it successful can go a long way for your own career and for those who will leverage a similar development tool down the road.

About the Author

Tammy Heermann

Tammy Heermann is Senior Vice President, Leadership Transformation with Lee Hecht Harrison. Helping organizations get serious about leadership, she is specifically sought out for her expertise in gender diversity and accelerating female talent.

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