Sponsorship; the Key to Work Success.

Is it okay to use relationships to get ahead at work?

I’m not talking about anything illicit or even romantic. Just whether or not it’s ethical to trade on friendships, or even build friendships with the intention of using them to your advantage.

According to the research, most women would say no.

But most men would say yes.

Recent research from Catalyst and The Center For Work-Life Balance (via the Harvard Business Review) suggests that this difference in the way that men and women view work relationships helps explain why, despite great advances in recent decades, women still lag behind men at the top levels of the corporate world. Research shows that men in large companies are 46% more likely to have a powerful sponsor than their female peers.

And sponsorship MATTERS.  A sponsor is essentially someone “with clout” who actively advocates on behalf of a lower-level employee. Unlike mentorship, which can happen behind closed doors, sponsors may put their own reputation and business influence on the line in order to promote their protégé. Having a high-level Sponsor has been shown to be a powerfully effective tool for career advancement. In fact, the studies I mentioned above suggest that it is the most important factor in determining who advances to the highest corporate levels.

So why don’t women have sponsors?

The relationships thing is a big part of it- women tend to be very good at forming relationships with people at work, but view it as dirty or unfair to use those relationships to their advantage. Men, on the other hand, see work relationships much more strategically. They expect to use relationships to their advantage and they expect others to do the same.

To combat this and other factors, some companies are introducing more open, formalized sponsorship programs, to make sponsorship “safe,” and more accessible to women and minorities. But even if your company doesn’t have a formal program, there are some steps you can take to best position yourself to earn a sponsor the old fashioned way.

First, be intentional. Know who the leaders in your company are and know what they’re about. Next, be visible. Show them your skills. Try to work with them on a project or give a presentation they will see.  Seek out ways to engage with them informally. Do they play in the company golf tournament? Try to get on their team. Do they belong to civic organizations? Consider joining. Finally, capitalize. Good leaders will always be looking for capable “rising stars” to develop.  When a leader gives you a compliment or comes beside you to support you, that is the best time to proactively ask them to be intentional about their support. You can do this without being boastful or arrogant. Simply and straightforwardly make it clear that you want to build leadership skills and advance in the company. Trust me, it goes a long way.

Early in my career at Trammell Crow, I had exactly this kind of opportunity with the CEO, here’s what I said: “George, I definitely aspire to be in the C-Suite of the company.  I would appreciate any feedback as to ways I might improve and I would appreciate your support when opportunities arise that you think I would be a good fit for the opportunity.” He became my mentor and my sponsor, and undoubtedly helped shape the course of my career.

For more tips, check out this great article from The Glass Hammer.