Blog

August 17, 2010I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
--Emily Dickenson

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How does a nobody become a somebody? By being sponsored.

Sponsors are like mentors—except they advocate for advancement. The latest Catalyst research on the careers of more than 4,000 M.B.A. graduates shows that more women than men have mentors, but these mentoring relationships are less likely to lead to promotions for women. A lack of sponsorship may help explain why women lag behind men in pay and promotions.

Sponsors combine power, influence, and a willingness to promote you—and they have the clout to do something concrete. The results can be dramatic.

Newly minted Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan had a powerful sponsor, Abner J. Mikva. Mikva learned the value of sponsorship early on. During his first year of law school, he tried to volunteer with the Democratic Party. “Who sent you?” asked the man behind the desk of local party office.

“Nobody,” Mikva replied.

“We don’t want nobody nobody sent,” the man huffed.

The experience, noted The New York Times, spurred his interest in public service and in “being the somebody who sent future somebodies.”

And that’s what he did for Kagan. According to the Times, he hired her as a clerk when he was a federal appeals judge in Washington DC. Mikva then recommended Kagan for a Supreme Court clerkship for Justice Thurgood Marshall. He promoted her for a professor’s job at the University of Chicago. Then he pulled her into a role in the Clinton White House. The rest, as they say, is history.

Sponsors stick with you—they don’t ditch you at your first promotion. They protect you from enemies. They push the right buttons. They understand the Unwritten Rules. And they ensure you’re visible. In short, they shape your career.

Of course, sponsorship is not an entitlement—you have to “earn it” by being a top performer. Your sponsor won’t take care of all the heavy lifting.

Companies are starting to realize the importance of sponsorship, and so should you. Mentors are important, but a good sponsor is gold. Seek one out. Become a somebody.