The idea of needing sponsors, in addition to mentors, is one that has received increasing attention over the last year or more. We have all been taught throughout our careers that we need mentors- those people who talk to you, who help youy with our strategy for career development. Mentors are the people who help you navigate the shark-infested waters that didn’t have a warning sign posted.
While sponsors may perform the same functions as mentors, there’s an important difference- a sponsor is that person who recommends you for a position or award, who connects you with other leaders, who helps you get to where you want to be. In short, they’re someone in a position of power who puts your name in front of people in a good way. They talk about you. For women in surgery the idea of having a mentor is particularly crucial; data from the business world shows that a woman with a sponsor is more likely to ask for big opportunities, more likely to seek a raise, and more likely to be satisfied with her rate of advancement in her career. We have no reason to believe this would be any different for a woman in academic medicine.
Sponsors, according to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, have three key characteristics:
- They believe in your potential and are therefore willing to take a risk for your benefit,
- They have a powerful voice at the table, and
- They provide you with the cover to take risks that you need to take to advance your career.
One of the important qualities to note about sponsors is that you need to earn their respect. If they don’t believe in your abilities, they simply aren’t going to stick their neck out for you. That means that your part of the sponsor relationship is to make the person who sponsors you look good; you don’t want their peers (other people in positions of power) to ever question why they keep your name in front of them. As one of my own mentees has explained what you need to do as someone being sponsored, “Say thank you, get things done that you committed to, and say thank you again.” I would assert that her attitude is completely appropriate, and I don’t say that simply because I have sponsored her for a variety of activities.
Where is the pitfall in sponsorship? Quite simply, it’s in the fact that we tend to sponsor people who “look like us.” This is a particular challenge for women and/or minorities who are in a field where they have not traditionally led (see: surgery). One partial solution to this difficulty has been developed my two women colleagues who are more senior and myself in the form of a sponsorship group: we all look for opportunities and awards that are suitable for other members of our small group (as well as women we all know who are following in our footsteps), and we co-nominate one another. This strategy has consistently proven a successful one for our group, and one that I would highly recommend to others. While we may not be able to rely on the “good old boys” network, our solution has been to create a “good old girls” network instead. It doesn’t resolve all of the issues related to needs for sponsorship, but it’s an important start.
How has having a sponsor benefitted you? What do you see as the practicalities and pitfalls of sponsorship- either as a sponsor or someone being sponsored?