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Making a career power play

The economist and author talks about a key moment that turned her career around. Hewlett spoke to Lillian Cunningham, the Post's On Leadership editor, for this video series. (Lillian Cunningham and Sandi Moynihan/The Washington Post)

In a new book, economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett uses data to show that mentorship, in its classic wise-elder-advises-younger-employee form, doesn't produce statistically significant career gains. What does however, her research found, is something she has termed "sponsorship"—a type of strategic workplace partnering between those with potential and those with power.

I spoke with Hewlett about the findings in her book, "(Forget a Mentor) Find a Sponsor," and the career advice she would give as a result. Hewlett also joined our On Leadership video series, sharing a story about a key turning point in her own work trajectory that you can watch in the video above.

Q. What prompted your research on mentorship?

A. Out there in the workplace, progress for women and minorities has really stalled. There’s amazing stuff happening at the middle and lower rungs of career ladders, but at the top there’s still this wall of white men. Less than 8 percent of the top earners in this economy are female. That is the figure of 15 years ago, and it hasn't shifted at all—despite the fact that 34 percent of middle managers are now female.

So the big question is, why? My work goes centrally after that question. We are able to show with data that women are only half as likely as men to have a sponsor—a senior champion at work who will basically take a bet on them, tap them on the shoulder, and really give them a shot at leadership.

Women have always had mentors, friendly figures who give lots of advice. They’re great. They’re good for your self-esteem; they’re good for your personal development. But no one’s ever been able to show that they do anything to help you actually move up.

That’s why this work is super important to all the new kids on the block—women, minorities, gay people, all those who historically have not had power—because the default position is for folks in power to pick people who look like them.

Q. Some of the research in your book I found most useful was when you walked through how to identify a career sponsor, as opposed to a mentor. Could you expound on that advice?

A. We find that women in particular often choose the wrong people. They’re vaguely aware they need a champion, someone to speak out for them, but they seek out a senior person they’re very comfortable with. Maybe it's someone who’s also a woman. Maybe it's a man who has a very collaborative leadership style that they feel comfortable with.

What we say in this research is, absolutely find role models. Absolutely find a mentor who is perhaps like you. But for a sponsor, you should go after the person with power, because you need someone who has a voice at those decision-making tables. You need to respect that person, you need to believe that person is a fabulous leader and going places, but you don’t need to like them. You don’t need to want to emulate them.

Because women have a hard time understanding that this is about power, and how to acquire power, they often don’t go after the folks who could really produce sponsorship for them. What you’re looking for is an alliance with someone really powerful. It may be the boss of your boss who can actually deliver for you.

Q. And how do you even make those alliances with someone who's not your direct manager?

A. Basically senior leaders are looking for three things. They told me they’re looking for someone who performs exceedingly well—whether it’s writing amazing legal briefs or really hitting those numbers, that’s at the heart of it. Secondly, you’ve got to demonstrate loyalty, because there’s risk in the relationship. This person is going to take a bet on you. And then thirdly, you have to bring some special value, some currency, to the table that the leader doesn’t have. Maybe it’s gender smarts in a marketplace that has a lot of women. Maybe it’s an amazing knowledge of the New Jersey market. Who knows? But figure out what your strength is that perhaps that leader doesn’t have, so you become indispensable. If you can make those three things sing, you will win sponsorship.

Now obviously you also need some tactics. First off, you can ask for a mentor at most workplaces. Ask for someone who has power, so that if you happen to convert this into sponsorship, it would work for you.

The cardinal rule here is to give before you get. When I did this research, I had some deep learnings myself. I realized that I had a potential sponsor in Washington—someone called Alan Krueger, who was the head of the Council of Economic Advisers. I realized Alan might be able to open some doors for me, essentially sponsor me. But learning from my own work, I called and I said, “Alan, what can I do for you? I have this valuable data. Could it be helpful? Tell me about your immediate mission, and how I can contribute to it.”

Well, he almost fell off his seat. It was so nice to have someone call and say, “How can I help you?” Right? So I did help him with some data, but he also felt great about the work I was doing and has opened some doors.

Figure out how you could be valuable and then sponsorship flows. You don’t walk into someone’s office, particularly someone you don’t know, and say, “Will you sponsor me?” That is a guaranteed route to failure on this front. And obviously you’ve got to do your homework. You can’t say, “How can I be valuable?”—unless in your mind you already know that a piece of work in your back pocket actually could fit into this person’s urgent agenda.

Q. All this seems to assume you have a pretty clear vision of where you want to go.

A. Exactly. You have to know, in some large way, what your destination is, what your dream is. You can’t figure out the leaders who can help you get there unless you know where you’re going.

One piece of advice is that you probably need to target two sponsors in your organization—not just because that hedges your bets (maybe you’ll win one of them), but it makes a lot of sense to invest in a couple of senior-level allies. What if one gets canned or retires early? You don’t want to be left high and dry. There’s also a 2-plus-1 rule: You need two sponsors on the inside and one on the outside, because you need to distribute your risk.

Q. How do you start those relationships with potential sponsors you don't know well already?

A. We find one of the tactics to get to know a senior person in your organization, and in a more peer-on-peer way to impress them, is actually to get involved in some community or professional organization which is a little outside of work.

Whether  it’s your diversity council or your women’s leadership group, you have to be active in other forums where you might showcase your strengths. It has to be authentic—you can’t just do it in a fake way—but we all have interests. For many people, that's a really joyous way of doing it. You’re getting involved in something you believe in, and you’re giving legs to your career and forging this two-way alliance with a senior person that can lead to sponsorship.

A 35-year-old man I interviewed for the book was working at Whirlpool, a traditional company, not a whole lot of growth. But he knew that Whirlpool cared a lot about the reputation of the company in the community. And his boss’s boss was the president of the local Boys and Girls Club, and it was in the red. So Mark, who actually volunteered at this charity and believed in their programs, stepped up to the plate. He got himself onto the board of this nonprofit and spent all kinds of Friday nights and Sunday mornings doing his best to turn this organization around, and he turned it around in three years. When the time rolled around for the next series of promotions at Whirlpool, Mark got one of the promotions. He had earned it, but the way he stood out was that he had made this connection to a senior person via the community.

Q. What do you think leaders of organizations can do to create better sponsorship opportunities and pipelines for talent within their companies? 

A. You can’t force match. You can’t say to your executive team, “Go pick a woman, and go sponsor her.” It has to be organic, so what companies are doing very successfully is making both sides of the equation aware of how powerful this can be, then throwing them together in specific situations.

I’ll give an example. At Morgan Stanley in New York, newly minted female managing directors never met the very senior guys, because there were no women at the top to speak of and there was no natural way of connecting. So the company put on a breakfast every month that was very carefully planned. It had a business focus and a great presenter, and they invited their senior 15 leaders and the newly promoted class of female managing directors (which was exactly the level where they tended to lose women). They seated them cleverly, made sure the women gave some of the presentations, and sponsorship flourished. They just needed a venue to showcase each other’s abilities, or, in the case of the senior people, the passions and the projects they were leading.

Q. I imagine you've found these work alliances appeal more to the senior team than traditional mentoring does anyway, given the relationships are by nature strategic and people's time and resources are so tight these days.

A. One thing I think is critical to emphasize—and this is so clear in the research—is that sponsorship is not a burden, unlike mentoring. When you have just two or three protégés you very carefully select because they have enormous potential, they are giving more to you than you’re giving to them. When a protégé is delivering on the performance, the loyalty and the value-added front, they propel the career of the senior person.

We’ve measured this. Leaders who have a posse of incredibly proactive protégés are 13 percent more likely themselves to get to the next level of leadership. It increases their scope and span.

One senior leader said to me, “I don’t do empathy. This is not what this is about. I make strategic investments in young people, and a whole lot has to be coming back.” That’s exactly how we should see it. This is not some kind of gift. This is an investment in the best of the next generation.

Lillian Cunningham is the editor and feature writer for The Washington Post's 'On Leadership' section.



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