by Maggie Chan Jones

When I was growing my corporate career in the technology industry, I remember thinking to myself, I wish I could be a fly-on-the-wall in those performance review calibration meetings, to see how people are chosen for promotions. When I became a people manager and later an executive, I witnessed and participated in countless debates on certain promotions and job hires. Behind every job appointment or promotion, there are always leaders who recommend or advocate for you to get the role. These discussions happen behind closed doors, when you are not in the room. This is even more true at the senior management level, all the way up to the C-Suite and board of director appointments. When these discussions and rigorous evaluation processes take place behind closed doors, the leaders who advocate for you are your Sponsors. They are your ultimate career champions.

This was especially true for me in my own career journey as I met many people along the way who have changed the course of my career. That is why in order to change the game in advancing gender diversity in the leadership pipeline, it is not enough to keep your head down, work hard and hope to get noticed. Working with a Sponsor or multiple of them is crucial. They see the true potential in you and how your work supports the growth of your team and the company. It’s such a powerful partnership that it can open doors for you, even when you’re not in the room.

First, how do you spot your sponsors? Sponsors are typically:

Someone more senior to you to help advocate on your behalf. They can be your direct, skip level manager or executives you work with.

Those who have the political capital to open doors – opportunities and visibility – for you. They help you build relationships/networks and enable you to map out your career path within the organization and beyond, allowing you to take your career to the next level. This is the big difference is between a sponsor and a mentor, and both are important.

Someone who knows your work, your potential, and you as a leader. They’ve recognized your potential and now want to help you cultivate it for continued growth.

And how do you build your partnership with your sponsors? Consider these three tips:

Align your goals to those of your sponsors. This should be a natural exercise. Sponsorship is not a favor. Your managers, your business group executives become your sponsors because you have demonstrated your capabilities through your hard work, alignment to organizational goals and strong connection to company mission and values.

Share your career goals and ask for help. Your sponsors are not mind-readers. You have to take charge of your own career by sharing where you want to go, and seek advice and help along the way. With the information you shared, your sponsors, who have a broader view of the organization, may even offer other opportunities that aren’t on your radar for you to explore

Be proactive in communicating progress and achievements. Many women I speak with are worried that it will come across as bragging. Consider this, by communicating your progress and achievements periodically, it’s in a way validating that your sponsors are betting on the right person for growth and allowing them to celebrate wins with you. It’ll also enable them to consider how they may further support your career goals.

Leaders can truly make a difference in advancing diversity and inclusion in their organization by being a sponsor of next generation leaders. According to McKinsey & Company and LeanIn’s Women in the Workplace 2019 study, fewer than half of employees at the manager level or higher serve as sponsors, and only 1 in 3 employees says they have a sponsor. And that, women with a Sponsor are 1.5 times more likely to aspire to be top executives themselves. Because of this, we need more men and women to sponsor high potential women to move the needle for change.

As leaders, here are three easy steps you can take to become a sponsor:

Spot high potential talents. You are likely an informal sponsor for high potential talents on your team already. Why not take it a step further and let them know that you want to be their sponsor. Help them realize their career dreams by opening doors to opportunities and network to build new skills.

Seek out intersectionality. The Women in the Workplace reports have brought attention to the even more discouraged stat of the leadership pipeline and progression for women of color. When I was a corporate executive, I sought out women of color, especially African American women, in the organization to sponsor because inclusion only happens when there is a critical mass.

Be on a journey with them. When you sponsor talent, especially those in minority groups (e.g. race, gender, sexual orientation, differently-abled, and others), you get a glimpse of their experiences and struggles in the workplace. As a woman of color myself, I often say to others that it’s absolutely possible to break the glass ceiling to reach the C-Suite and Board of Directors. It just means that you may be encountering more “no’s” (compared to others) before you find the right opportunity. As a sponsor, it’s your job to be their cheerleader along the way.

As I say to those I have sponsored or mentored, a sponsor can only open doors. Whether to walk through those doors is entirely up to you. Tell us who have been your sponsors and have helped you opened doors to new opportunities and career growth in the Comments section.