According to recent reports, 77% of women report their biggest obstacle to gender equity in the workplace is the information on how to advance. 37% of women (versus 65% of men) report that their employer provides information on what career experience leads to executive roles. This is a significant discrepancy, and in my own research with VP level Millennial females who have moved upwards during the pandemic, it was only through gaining a champion in their career that they were able to gain the insight and support to gain a promotion or upward move. Typically, statistics show that women normally do not get sponsorship outside of their direct management chain. This was very consistent in my personal interviews of women in my network who climbed the ladder. In nearly all of my interviews, it was the direct Manager of the ambitious female who not only mentored – but championed – her upwards.
The distinction here is although mentors are helpful, a champion is an individual who is willing to advocate and sponsor an employee who they feel is providing value to them as well. There’s a personal connection that is built over time, and consistency. Harvard Business Review breaks it down in a wonderful chart below- I find the difference to be Mentorship in the bottom left providing “Instruction” and in some cases a few attributes from the other boxes. However, “Authentic Sponsorship” is a true gold Champion.
Knowing that other millennial women have reached VP status quickly having their direct managers acting as champions, I then asked “how the heck did they cultivate such great relationships with their bosses?” Based on my research, and experience, here’s what I’ve found are 5 aspects to cultivating this championship with an Authentic Sponsor based on HBR’s findings and tweaked based upon my interviews and more recent findings.
The 5 Questions of Championship:
- What are their professional values? Understand a priority that they value and are focused on at work. – Demonstrate special interest in it if it’s something you value as well. This needs to be genuine or else you are not aligning to what you want to be associated with for your future. For example, perhaps your boss is professionally tied to a revenue goal for the year, but values and prioritizes a high activity level such as having 12 client meetings a week. In this case, your superior values high activity. Perhaps you volunteer to create a tracker or help those on the team who are struggling to make this happen.
- Is it Authentic? Reframe sucking up to the boss. You need to earn their championship – and so as HBR reports and I agree – the burden of connecting with a sponsor is on the junior. There must be an air of humility with your confidence – you are smart and ambitious but you do not know everything, thus you are “coachable.” As our world is realizing workers are people with a “whole self” – this is good news as a key here is finding something in common outside of work. This is especially important for those that are not “like” their desired sponsors. The “like bias” as HBR alludes to, is essentially saying something we inherently know – its easier to connect with people who are “like us.” In the old days, this generally meant taking up golf even if you hated it. Try to think outside of the box on this one – So even if you feel like you’re drastically different than your direct Manager, start engaging him or her and find out what other activities they like to do. Maybe they enjoy something you didn’t expect like cooking, or are a runner, or they have a child who went to your alma mater so you’re both fans.
- Is it Enjoyable? This relationship is successful when two professionals enjoy themselves together professionally – once you find something in common, do you actually enjoy their company? Do they enjoy yours? Do you bring out positivity, excitement and joy in them when they see you? Sure this may not be everyone, but for those I’ve interviewed they lit up when they talked about their sponsors. Like their favorite people. But the interviewees themselves worked at developing the relationship to that point. This takes work and does not happen with everyone. But it sure does make work life much more pleasant as well!
- Are they Invested in you? Do they see you as someone who makes them “look good” professionally? Get them invested in your success. I used to do this via advice seeking. It’s a genuine way to ask for a tenured perspective while the champion’s thought and input are like deposits in your professional development. They want their deposits to pay off! One key element here that I noticed is a best practice – Be sure to be vocal about your career and gain their advice & investment in the upward trajectory of your career. This improves the odds that they will help you move up if they believe you’re taking the right steps.
- Are you rushing it? This is gradual. Remember developing a champion is not as simple as having a quarterly call with a mentor. This is a relationship that needs to evolve naturally. Sure, you need to put in the work with someone who you admire and who is willing. But like any other relationship there’s a natural component and that takes time to develop. So if your goal is to be promoted on a timeline- assess where you are in this relationship. If you’re starting from the beginning you may want to reevaluate your timeline while you develop this relationship. In my research the promotion happened once this relationship was well established.
Maybe the old adage is true- “your boss is your job.” Immediate next actions include assessing your current management and chain of leadership- are these individuals capable of the criteria above? If not, perhaps you may need to assess other opportunities – keeping in mind how important your direct line of leadership is in the advancement of your career. If this makes you excited about cultivating this type of relationship with your chain of command, then perhaps you’re in the right setting to empower yourself professionally and go for it! Hopefully this sheds light as you evaluate your plan for upward mobility.
If you are struggling with developing a Champion at work, or feel like you’ve hit a glass ceiling in your professional development like so many in their early and mid point in their career- reach out to me for more information on my coaching offerings at www.empoweredengagement.com for more research findings that you can apply to accelerating your next promotion.