What Do Women in Higher Education Need Right Now? Sponsorship

When someone looks back on a successful career, they often reminisce about the mentors who supported them on their journey. They think of those moments when they were at a fork in the road, and a wise sage imparted advice that helped them to make important decisions that impacted their career trajectory.  While mentors are important and cherished figures in our professional life, it is the direct influence of sponsors that is the most critical. What separates a mentor from a sponsor is, quite simply, power.  

In her book, “Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast Track your Career” author Sylvia Ann Hewlett shares that if you are interested in fast-tracking your career, what you need is a senior-level champion who believes in your potential and is willing to advocate for you, (2013).

A mentor can help you to weigh the pro/cons of if you should open a certain door. A sponsor throws the door open for you. They are putting their name on you, endorsing you, and are actively removing obstacles from your path. For women and people of color, sponsorship is even more critical. Because underrepresented groups often get little to no feedback at work, they are often in need of sponsors who see their greatness and deliver the kind of advice and insight that they will not receive from their boss or peers. They are invested in your success and as such will tell you what none else will. This allows the person to course-correct, calibrate their actions, and improve.  

A sponsor is tremendously important for entry and mid-level practitioners. A powerful sponsor can help you to gain entrance into spaces that 1) you never knew existed, 2) would never be invited to. This is helpful when looking to build your professional network, be considered for an award or academic publication, or serve on a important committee or board.

There are many challenges in our industry including understanding the unwritten rules of behavior, figuring out the professional work culture, and navigating the political landscape in higher education that can take awhile to learn based on the culture of your university. In the event of a professional mis-step that could prevent you from achieving a specific goal, one word from a sponsor can remove that barrier.  

So how does one find a sponsor? These relationships often take awhile to develop because the sponsor has to be willing to put their name on you. Typically, a relationship will naturally develop and the onus is on the person seeking to be sponsored to follow-up with the potential sponsor and repeatedly demonstrate their value and potential. A sponsor may test you to see if they should continue their sponsorship—for example, getting you entrance into a dinner party with powerful people and seeing how you interacted with the group and determining if you added value to the event. 

It is also important to diversify your sponsorship. Seek sponsors who look and think differently than you. Not all sponsorship relationships have to be long-term—some can be for a specified event or opportunity—but all are valuable. In this career, it does indeed take a village, and your village should include influential sponsors that know your professional ambitions and dreams and can help to make them a reality. 

When I was 29, I was an Assistant Director in Residence Life and an influential sponsor offered to take me to a high-level event that was only for Vice Presidents. I was initially hesitant—who was I to be at this event? But I quickly realized that this was an opportunity: to make a good impression and create connections with influential and prestigious people.

Ten years later, I am now a Vice President of Student Affairs. I recently was invited to a reception for VP’s and I brought an impressive 26-year-old with me. Why? Because I’ll always remember how powerful that moment of sponsorship was for me and I’ve committed to passing the torch that was so graciously given to me a decade ago.

In our world, it is essential to continue the chain of sponsorship as you advance in your career. Seek out high-potential talent in your entry and mid-level staff and open doors for them whenever possible.   

Have thoughts about sponsorship?  I would love to hear them! Tweet me at @annmarieklotz


Ann Marie Klotz is the Vice President of Student Affairs at Radford University. She served on the Executive Board of OWHE from 2012-2014. 

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