She’s Not Strategic, the sequel: Women are over-mentored and under-sponsored

Hundreds of women and dozens of men have reached out since I published The Real Reason Women Aren’t Getting Ahead In Tech: She’s Not Strategic. It’s been bittersweet. I’m humbled, but it’s disheartening to know so many people felt like it was written about them and their careers.

The comments that hit me in the gut:

“You know that chilling feeling where you’re about to tear up because something is so painfully true? For me (and the friend that forwarded it to me), that was the para on ‘only time to execute.’ Thank you for calling it out.”

“As a strong operator, I’ve been battling the “She’s not strategic” mentality for years.”

“I think just about every woman I know has experienced this.”

“It couldn’t be more relevant, especially now that many women need to slow down or step back from their careers to care for their children during this crisis, which would put them at an even greater disadvantage when they are ready to come back.”

The comments that have me writing the sequel:

“Just wanted to thank you for your SNS post. I showed it to my boss, and we put together a plan for giving me more strategic oversight and company-wide visibility with projects. 😁”

“I’ve had SNS hit me many, many times in my career. Too many times actually. Your article describes it so clearly and has given me the boost to not let it happen again.”

The inspiration for this article: Jenn VandeZande, Editor in Chief at SAP, who said the words, “Women are over-mentored and under sponsored” on stage in 2020. I think this topic is the yin to SNS yang. So, Jenn and I have co-authored this article because the response has been strong and the “SNS” discussion needs to have more voices.

These are two distinct issues preventing women from rising in leadership positions. (1) Subconscious bias towards women being more operational than strategic., which is covered in She’s Not Strategic. (2) Even if a woman’s strategy game is on point, she still might not move up due to a lack of door openers. Those are sponsors. While many women receive mentorship, many women struggle to receive sponsorship.

Harvard Business Review published a great article: A Lack of Sponsorship is Keeping Women From Advancing into Leadership. The summary: Women are struggling to reach the c-suite due to a lack of powerful sponsors who provide stepping stone opportunities.

Here’s a truth bomb:

“This disparity in access to critical roles may be compounded, or perhaps caused, by differences in women’s and men’s relationships with executives who can provide access to those jobs. Here human nature creates an uneven playing field: People’s tendency to gravitate to those who are like them on salient dimensions such as gender increases the likelihood that powerful men will sponsor and advocate for other men when leadership opportunities arise.” — Herminia Ibarra, Charles Handy Professor of Organizational Behavior, London Business School

I hope this conversation will help more women and men get to the next level. But hope is not a strategy, so let’s get strategic and tackle this next barrier to upward mobility.

What makes mentorship and sponsorship different?

Here’s a simple definition of mentors vs. sponsors:

Mentors: People who give you feedback, typically with more experience than you. They encourage you to improve so you can create more opportunities for yourself.

Sponsors: People in positions of power who advocate for you. They create opportunities for you.

You need both, and mentorship without sponsorship is not likely to help you progress — but far too few women realize this. While women are receiving feedback and mentorship, male peers are far more likely to be receiving opportunities because sponsors create them.

What does sponsorship look like?

There are different forms of sponsorship in corporate structures.

Explicit sponsorship is:

● Advocating for someone for a promotion.

● Speaking out on behalf of someone to be in the upper right of the 9-box.

● Ensuring someone gets a shot at leading a critical project.

● Hiring is also sponsorship, but the buck shouldn’t stop there.

Everyone needs to prove themselves in their roles; hiring someone and then not giving them continued opportunities or any real power is a lack of true sponsorship.

While speaking on a panel at Robinhood recently, I was joined by Dana Hawkins, Head of Employee Relations at Robinhood, who said, “Stop meetings when people aren’t present that should be.” That’s a critical example of sponsorship — it lets everyone else in the meeting know that the person who should be there is essential (and strategic) to the discussion and decision.

Sometimes sponsorship can be more subtle:

● Asking someone a question during a company meeting so they can have a visibility opportunity.

● Making yourself absent and letting a direct report present to your superior.

● Mentioning to your CEO that they should have a conversation with a person who you think has value to add on an important topic.

In a recent conversation with Carol Meyers, Venture Partner at Glasswing Ventures and former CMO at Rapid7, she recalled more than one occasion where important projects were being set, and a woman was identified as great for running the project, while a man was identified to be the “strategic voice” of the project. She had to push hard for the woman running the project to also be the voice to the company. That’s sponsorship!

Why is only having mentorship a problem?

There are two reasons, and the first one is a big one:

  1. If you’ve got a mentor and not a sponsor, that means that your mentor can provide feedback, but isn’t able to provide opportunities. Then you’re stuck in a feedback loop. Asking for feedback often makes people comfortable giving you feedback (great!). However, once people get comfortable with this, they can get a little too comfortable. Feedback can quickly morph into a coach correcting every. single. thing. you’re doing. This ultimately can erode the confidence required to be a leader.
  2. The other reason is more straightforward: Mentors can’t get you where you want to go, only you can get you there. This is a lonely & hard road to take.

I recently ran a quick pulse survey to see within my network if there’s a gap between women receiving mentorship and sponsorship. While a low sample size, there’s clear validation here that something is up:

I also asked women to share experiences about having — or lacking — sponsorship:

The absence of clear sponsorship is a barrier to growth (and can be lonely):

“I would actually say that for most of my career, it was a bit opaque whether someone really went “to bat” for me when the time came. I was really fortunate to have mentors who were great sounding boards and safe spaces to share honest thoughts, but when I really reflect on my personal experience I’m not sure that I necessarily know or saw instances when people really stepped outside of our shared safe space to advocate for me. This made me realize that a lot of people in my career have been affirming my feelings, my decisions, and my opinions in 1–1 settings, but when tough decisions came to light, it didn’t always result in direct advocacy for me. In some ways this was more confusing for me because I felt so supported in one space and so alone in a public setting.” -Anonymous

“I’ve had mentors throughout my career, both male and female. Both genders have been enormously helpful in shaping my thinking around challenges and being supportive through my journey. One of my mentors once positioned me for a specific role that ended up shaping the trajectory of my career. In hindsight, I believe he was acting as an unofficial sponsor. That role enabled me to grow and sharpen my thinking in leaps and bounds, as it was outside my comfort zone and impacting a top-line growth area for the company. I’ve never had an official sponsor in my career, and I do believe that having someone like that can dramatically improve progression for women, especially women of color.” -Paroma Sen, Sr. Director, Industry Cloud GTM, SAP

Having sponsorship means you have allies (and maybe even exceptionally helpful friends):

“I would say that my success has been a product of a village of invested, empowering sponsors. I owe my start in this industry to David Cooperstein, who hired me as a research associate at Forrester with no marketing experience or background. He was both a tireless advocate for me to have new opportunities throughout the company and a generous investor of his own time in my development…To this day, he remains a trusted advisor, helpful coach, and adored friend. — Cory Munchbach, Chief Operating Officer, BlueConic

“I’m lucky to have had an amazing series of sponsors along my career path, each of whom aligned and was seminal to a monumental shift in my career. First — I would call it the “saw something in me and let me get my foot in the door” early on when I was making a big career shift into tech. This sponsor brought me in and then gave me the perfect series of “deep end” projects to help me grow, but didn’t let me sink to the bottom. Then — a ‘mid-career’ sponsor that gave me the tools to build a first big team and not only provided me guidance for how to navigate the politics of moving up in the organization around me… but also how to guide and sponsor shining stars on my own team to do the same. And — now — I have an amazing sponsor whose thoughtful, deliberate leadership I take as a model and try to emulate in my own actions.” — Katrina Gosek, Vice President | Sales Portfolio | Oracle CX Product Strategy

“Oftentimes in my career I’ve been tapped for new projects or promotions and I know my sponsors were always behind the scenes helping ensure my name came up when these opportunities were shared. However one sponsor really helped me think about these opportunities more strategically by challenging me to think not just about what value I’d bring to that new project/role, but what I’d be getting out of it… She helped me feel comfortable stretching earlier in my career, and not just settling for things “I’d be good at”, but things that would help the company and me get better.” -Laura DiGangi, Regional Sales Manager, Hologic

Getting to leadership takes mentorship, sponsorship, earning it, and fighting for it

Mentorship and sponsorship are not handouts. They don’t come because you ask for it — you have to earn it. You don’t have to burnout, but you have to work smart, and it has to be visible. This is covered in the original SNS article.

Self-advocacy is also required — a topic many women cringe at. It’s not natural, and women can be dinged for overconfidence just as often as they’re dinged for lacking confidence. (Consider reading the article Speaking While Female by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant.) Self-advocacy is a real tightrope walk, but you have to find your authentic path through it. Two of the biggest promotions in my career came while I was being sponsored, but I still had to fight for myself. The door had been opened from above, the ball was set, but I had to spike it. No one else could do that but me.

To all my ladies: How do you get sponsorship?

Start by targeting 2+ people in positions of power and offer an idea or to support their particular project.

You must offer value to sponsors in the beginning. Once you’ve demonstrated value, it’s quite possible sponsorship will come naturally, but in order to make sure it does, seek out an explicit conversation with those individuals, and focus on your career goals and where you’d like to go. This is easy — you’re not asking for a promotion (that’s hard!) but it’s critical that you let people in positions of power know that you want to move into leadership. If you don’t say it, it’s very easy for leaders to assume you’re not interested. Invite them to give you feedback and brainstorm ways you could progress.

If they can’t have this conversation with you — it’s possibly a sponsorship dead end. It wasn’t a waste of your time because you increased your visibility and made strategic contributions you can talk about, but you need to find someone who is willing to advance you. One pointer: Look for those who’ve clearly lifted other women up.

To those in power and capable of sponsorship: The time is now

Often those in power don’t recognize the systemic bias that’s rooted in all of us. If you’re someone in power with the ability to sponsor others, consider the following:

Men: Think about those who you’ve talked up, the doors you’ve opened, and what those people looked like. If it’s largely men, it’s time to pick a couple of women you’re willing to advance. They’re right in front of you, I promise. They’ve worked hard and earned it every bit as much as their male peers but are less likely to have a close relationship with you, so you may not naturally think of them.

Women: It does not dilute your power to give other women power. It strengthens it. Women can be very bad about sponsoring other women because we’re often taught there’s only so much space at the table for women. There is room for everyone. Mention the great work of other women to your superiors and be clear on your belief in their potential. You can also ask them for ideas for high-stakes projects that could offer those women a shot. Then you’re not the only sponsor.

This is about equality

PayScale published a report titled Sponsors: Valuable allies not everyone has — it’s a great read to understand that the issue is about leadership and equal pay. Spoiler: Those with sponsors get bigger roles and bigger paychecks.

I received some feedback on the last article, “Doesn’t this put the onus on women to solve what’s really a systemic problem?” I think that’s fair feedback. My personal perspective is systemic bias won’t be addressed until we get more women and underrepresented minorities into leadership positions. When the table is diverse, the diverse voices will be able to correct the system, and equal opportunity and equal pay will come. But I believe we have to close the leadership gap to re-address the system.

While writing from the perspective of a woman in tech, I hope this topic resonates with anyone who is underrepresented or feels the lack of sponsorship.

CMO @Starburst, former CMO Mirakl, VP, Mktg @Drift & VP, Product Mktg @Acquia. Love start-up culture and being SaaSy. Also love being a mom & wifey.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store