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October 6, 2011Following the release of Sponsoring Women to Success, I invited all three co-authors to share some of their most interesting—and important—findings about sponsorship. In August, we heard from Heather Foust-Cummings, who discussed how sponsorship offers a unique “triple win.” Today, Jennifer Kohler outlines four things all women can do starting today to get a sponsor and encourages leaders to do their part too—to become talent scouts who look beyond the “usual suspects.” —Ilene H. Lang

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It’s a well-known fact: many employees wait to get noticed, keeping their heads down and just working hard. Don’t do it—there’s a good chance you’ll be stuck in that posture for years.

As our Sponsoring Women to Success report and accompanying tool demonstrate, advancement can take more than just hard work. Sponsorship can be a powerful career accelerator that combines the active advocacy of a leader with the “rising stock” of a high performer. In short, sponsorship can take your career to the next level.

Our research points to four things you can start doing today to give yourself the best chance of earning sponsorship:

- Consistently exceed expectations.

- Ask for and act on feedback.

- Make yourself visible.

- Develop a reputation as a respected, flexible colleague.

When you do secure a sponsor, forget entitlement—the sponsor only opened the door. It’s up to you to walk through and make your mark. And let’s be clear: sponsorship is not about favoritism. Protégés earn their sponsorship and have to prove their worth every day thereafter.

For senior leaders committed to building a pipeline of talent, it’s about noticing a top performer with future potential and providing the kind of pivotal opportunity that can take her from “stellar individual contributor” to “influential leader.” This kind of talent scouting generates nothing but positive outcomes for the organization, not to mention a reputation as a key cultivator of talent.

So if you’re a senior leader, look broadly, look deeply, and look often. Pay attention to talent all around you—not just those already “on the list.” Anyone should be eligible. As one male sponsor we interviewed put it: “If I’m rewarding performance and showcasing performance and recognizing value contributions, then everyone has a shot at my sponsorship.”

Taking calculated chances on high performers happens every day, but all too often our research shows that sponsorship typically works in favor of men. This results in a future crop of leaders who precisely mirror those who came before—and we know this isn’t good for women or for business.

To the high performers: own your success and get noticed. And to the senior leaders: get focused on the talent all around you. More female sponsorship can mean more career acceleration for talented women—because they earned it.

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Jennifer Kohler, Director, Advisory Services, consults with companies and firms in the areas of diversity and inclusion, with an emphasis on the advancement of women. She is a frequent speaker and has facilitated workshops on a range of subjects, including unwritten rules, work-life effectiveness, and mentoring and sponsorship. Prior to coming to Catalyst, Ms. Kohler received her M.A. in Social-Organizational Psychology from Columbia University, where she conducted research on work and family issues, later published in the Sloan Work and Family Research Network encyclopedia, and her B.A. from Cornell University, summa cum laude.