Paying it Forward by Taking Mentoring to the Sponsorship Level

Many of us were told when we were young to not always take credit for a job well done; to deflect and practice humility.  Don’t put your name in bold letters next to a project. It’s good advice, but has it impaired women’s ability to break through the glass ceiling? Are women now afraid to take credit; are they stumbling on their way up the career ladder? Those were some of the questions volleyed around the room of 350 professionals – mostly female – at a Women in Cable Telecommunications (WICT) luncheon on Sept. 24 in New York.

Moderating a panel of four powerful executives from Comcast, ESPN, Girl Scouts and The White House Project, Soledad O’Brien, CNN anchor, proposed that the notion of work/life balance is a misleading goal.  It’s more like a choice: will you put more weight into your career over your personal life — and if you choose not to work 70 hours a week, are you choosing middle management at best?  One conclusion to this discussion: work hard and play hard – pay your dues but pay attention to your personal life, too. D’Arcy Rudnay of Comcast said it best when she noted that she had to work hard to get where is today. So obvious that you have to work hard: whether you’re a man or a woman.  I appreciated her bluntness, and the notion that meritocracies do exist.

Sean Bratches, evp of sales and marketing at ESPN and the lone male on the panel, implored the women in the audience to take more credit for their work and to identify five people in their life who can help with their careers, and to foster those relationships.  While that’s happening – in an ideal work world – there should be sponsors within organizations paving a path for someone’s promotion and overall success.

O’Brien commented that many young women are “floundering” as they seek mentors and leadership roles. But the discussion was less about mentoring and more about sponsoring.  Mentors guide; sponsors promote.

Those at my luncheon table were baffled at first by the word “sponsorship,” but it appeared to be a commonly used term among those on the panel. To sponsor someone is to be an activist for that person; to promote her to your colleagues when she’s not around; to push for advancement on her behalf; to advocate for her success.

I like this concept of Sponsorship and wish it were a widely practiced activity in its purest form in all industries.  Maybe it is and no one’s talking about it yet.

Look around at the people you work with – those lateral to you, those climbing the ladder. There are probably a few people you can sponsor — and it won’t cost you anything.  And though the talk at the WICT luncheon was on women’s advancement, I wouldn’t limit it to the sponsorship of young female stars; it’s beholden on those in leadership positions to sponsor promising individuals and to pay it forward.

— Diane Schwartz