Closing the “So Close, But So Far” Gap for Women

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Jennifer Christie, Chief Diversity Officer at American Express, talks about a key component that keeps women from getting to the top of the corporate ladder.

We hear it all the time. Women are advancing to senior roles in the corporate world, but they are just not making it all the way to the top. At the end of the day, women only still represent 3.6% of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies (source: Center for Talent Innovation). So what is keeping women from taking their place in the C-Suite? Sponsorship, or lack thereof, is partly to blame.

That is because having a respected, senior leader sponsor you, pulling you up through the organization can make or break your career. This becomes particularly important as you move into senior management level roles. At this level, you are no longer "applying" for new opportunities, but must be "tapped" for them. A sponsor will advocate for you and put their reputation up as collateral in exchange for your advancement. Without a sponsor, your career can be limited.

AMEX Conference
Sylvia Ann Hewlett, from the Center for Talent Innovation, hosts a panel discussion on sponsorship with some of American Express’ executive women at the company’s bi-annual Women’s Conference in October.

But for women and people of color, sponsors are harder to come by than they are for white men. The Center for Talent Innovation reports that men are 46% more likely than women to have a sponsor, and Caucasians are 63% more likely than people of color to have a sponsor. How can we change the game?

The game-changing, "aha" moment for me was realizing that no one owed me sponsorship in exchange for hard work and top performance. Outworking my colleagues, driving results, and taking on special projects wasn’t enough. There’s more to earning sponsorship. So here’s some advice on what sponsors are looking for and how you can be a sought-after protégé.

5 Ways You Can Get (and Keep) a Sponsor:

  1. If you want a sponsor, you need to be a sponsor: One of the key characteristics of an attractive protégé is someone who has followership and a personal army across the organization that can be called to service at a moment’s notice to tackle any challenge or achieve any goal. 
  2. Network, network, then network some more: It seems simple, but many of us don’t do enough it and do it the right way. Make a genuine connection and make it count, because establishing the relationship is not the end game. The ultimate goal is to leverage that relationship and form a mutually beneficial "contract" to get what you want and offer something in return.
  3. Your brand -- know it, own it, control it: Make sure that you have a distinct personal brand, and you are considered someone who brings added value through your different perspective or specific skill sets.
  4. Believe in yourself and be ready to rise to the occasion: If you are asked to take on a stretch assignment or a new role, don’t immediately start cataloguing all the ways you might fail or what you lack. Instead, think of the possibilities and show enthusiasm for the challenge. Your confidence in yourself will be contagious.
  5. YOU have to do the heavy lifting: You have to be clear on what you want AND what you are willing to do for it, and it’s your responsibility to make sure that your leader, sponsors, advocates, mentors and HR know it, too. Being passive about your career and hoping that others will want for you what you want for yourself is a big mistake.

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