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November 30, 2011What does the word “sponsorship” mean to you? For Catalyst’s Sarah Dinolfo, Director, Research, at first it meant very little. But this changed as she uncovered the power influential sponsors had on her own career. In this post—the third in series by co- authors of Sponsoring Women to Success—Sarah draws on personal experience to suggest ways to attract a sponsor, and how to pay it forward. ­

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If you had mentioned the concept of sponsorship to me very early in my career, I would have looked at you with a blank stare. I simply had no idea what sponsorship was in my first five years of work. Yet later on, I realized that I had experienced it directly, and, as luck would have it, I recently conducted a study on the very topic! Catalyst’s report, Sponsoring Women to Success, cemented my views about the power of sponsorship. Here’s what I learned:

Though I was not always aware of it at the time, I’ve had several influential sponsors who have actively worked on my behalf to advance my career – from those maneuvering behind the scenes to help me land my first job placement, to others opening doors to the numerous opportunities and leadership roles I’ve had since.

I can also see now that there are several things I did to contribute to my sponsors’ willingness to go to bat for me. These include:

- Showing initiative and delivering consistently solid performances, and demonstrating a willingness to learn and be challenged.

- Taking constructive feedback and adapting my approach accordingly. - Being open to every experience that came my way, and taking on assignments or roles that brought me out of my comfort zone and allowed me to develop new skills.

- Demonstrating commitment in the face of challenges.

- Treating all of my colleagues with respect and courtesy.

These behaviors may seem simple, but to be honest, if you don’t demonstrate outstanding performance, collegiality, and the ability and willingness to act on advice, sponsors may pass you over for someone who better fits the bill.

I could not have made it to where I am now without my sponsors, and my willingness to walk through the doors they helped open for me. So what should I, and others who have benefited from sponsorship, do next? Pay it forward and sponsor someone! Here’s how:

Look broadly and look deeply. Look for high performers who might get passed over by others. Look down within the organization for those talented folks who could really benefit from your sponsorship and accelerate their careers with opportunities. And look often—keep checking to see if there are people you can sponsor, because sponsorship is not a “once and done”!

Sponsor someone different from you. Seek out those talented individuals who are not well represented at the top, and sponsor them to help achieve more of a balance.

And finally, encourage others to sponsor! Whether it’s those who report to you, those you report to, or those you’ve sponsored, make sure they pay it forward to create a culture of sponsorship.

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Sarah Dinolfo directs research that examines and addresses barriers to women’s advancement, allowing organizations to more fully leverage employee talent. Drawing on her research and consulting experience with Fortune 500 companies in several industries, Sarah works with organizations to build diversity awareness and create more effective systems that can level the workplace playing field. She received her M.A. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and graduated cum laude with a B.A. in Psychology from the State University of New York, Geneseo.