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Sponsoring key to advancing women, execs say

Wednesday, October 22, 2014  
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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Sponsorship — not mentorship — transfers power in the workplace, according to a panel of senior executives offering their insights at the NEW Leadership Academy supersession held during the NEW Leadership Summit, Oct. 22, in Atlanta.

Martha Buffington, vice president, customer solutions at The Coca-Cola Company; Walmart’s Amy Parton, category director, pets, and Jody Pinson, vice president merchandising, beauty; and Publix Super Markets’ Alison Midili Smith, vice president of talent development shared their experiences with sponsorship. Jo Miller, CEO of Women’s Leadership Coaching Inc., moderated the session.

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"Mentors help you ‘skill up,’ sponsors help you move up,” Miller said. "Mentors give you perspective. Sponsors give you opportunities.”

Only 13 percent of women in large companies have sponsors. Yet, women who have sponsors are 22 percent more likely to ask for stretch assignments and raises, she noted.

An effective sponsor is influential and respected and has a track record of developing talent and providing exposure opportunities to their protégés, ‘air cover’ from damaging or negative publicity, and a safety net during downsizing, reorganizations or leadership changes.

Miller offered these eight tips for securing a sponsor:

  1. Perform.
  2. Know who the good sponsors are.
  3. Observe the protocols: How does sponsorship work in your organization?
  4. Network beyond your direct management chain.
  5. Raise your hand for exposure opportunities to work with or for potential sponsors.
  6. Make your value visible.
  7. Have clear career goals.
  8. Share your career goals with your leader.

Sponsorships often begin as mentorships, Buffington said. As a sponsor, the senior executive will make sure she clearly understands her protégé's career goals, then looks for job opportunities for her, going as far as calling hiring managers, prepping her for job interviews, ensuring she is nominated for leadership or other training programs, and working both behind the scenes and in a more overt way to advance the protege's career.

Parton, who considers Pinson a sponsor, said Pinson puts her in stretch work situations that Pinson believes she is capable of handing, which has improved her confidence, visibility and performance. 

For her part, Pinson said sponsorship starts with performance. "You don't deserve a sponsor if you don't perform," she said. "But it's also about how you perform. If you leave a wake of bodies, it's not something we are looking for. I watch how a person interacts with her peers. The other piece is how do they relate to external partners? How do they go get from our suppliers things our market needs?"

A key trait Smith looks for in a protégé is the ability to successfully manage a relationship with the boss. "Is the person flexible? What is her political acumen?"

Behave and perform as if everyone is watching, Smith advised, "because you are being watched. I know someone being sponsored who has no idea he is being sponsored."

Panelists Martha Buffington of The Coca-Cola Company, Alison Midili Smith of
Publix, moderator Jo Miller of Women's Leadership Coaching, and Amy Parton
and Jodi Pinson of Walmart shared their thoughts on mentorship and sponsorship.

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