How personal sponsorship could progress your career

23 November 2018 -

Vanessa Vallely

Mentors talk to you. Coaches ask questions. Sponsors talk about you. This week’s CMI Women event demonstrated vividly the impact of effective sponsorship

Guest blogger Emma De Vita

Vanessa Vallely recently received the OBE for services to women and the economy. But the founder of WeAreTheCity admits that early in her career “I missed opportunities by not being brave enough to articulate my career aspirations to potential sponsors.”

Vallely was the keynote speaker at “CMI Women – Sponsoring Women’s Progression”, an event designed to explain and explore the power of sponsorship in advancing careers, particularly for women, and people from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. For ambitious individuals, sponsorship means creating your own network of individuals who will help you on your career path.

CMI chief executive Ann Francke explained that, “a sponsor advocates for you when you are not in the room”. And she argued that sponsorship is key to increasing diversity in business. “I know it works,” she said. Francke cited statistics from the US showing that while black women comprise 18% of the entry-level population of the workforce, they make up only three per cent of the C-suite.

What good sponsorship looks like

“A sponsor is someone with power who knows you and your potential, who advocates for you, removes obstacles to your progress and champions you,” said Vallely, a passionate believer in the power of sponsorship. “A sponsor is someone who has enough clout to make a difference in decisions others make about your progress, and protect you so that you can take risks and make occasional mistakes without setting your career back.”

What a sponsor isn’t is a coach or a mentor, she said. “Sponsorship can’t be bought – it has to be earned”, she explained. According to US academic Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor, sponsorship has been shown to provide a benefit of up to 30% for high-profile assignments, promotions, and pay raises, yet very few women have sponsors.

According to Fast Company: “Women with sponsors are 27% more likely than their unsponsored female peers to ask for a raise and 22% more likely to ask for the “stretch assignments” that build their reputations as leaders.”

The case is compelling.

What makes a great sponsor (and a bad one)?

And yet, there are too many bad sponsors out there. According to Vallely, “a good sponsor doesn’t pay it lip service or do it for the wrong reasons”. You don’t want a sponsor who “is a little bit full of it, and who delivers nothing.”

The question then becomes: how to find a sponsor? You can often convert a mentors to become a sponsor, said Vallely. “They know you, you feel comfortable with them,” she said. Attending internal networking events might also provide fertile hunting-ground for potential sponsors. Once you’ve identified someone, ask yourself where you want to be in five years’ time, and whether that person will be a sponsor who is able to help you get there.

What does effective sponsorship look like?

Heather Melville, chair of CMI Women, and her sponsor Andy Woodfield, a partner at PwC, took part in the event to explain how their relationship works. While they now work together – Woodfield was instrumental in Melville’s recent move to PwC -– the pair originally met through judging awards together.

Interestingly, Melville was presented with her dream opportunity at PwC at a time when she wasn’t actually looking for it. “A real good sponsor won’t write your CV for you but will give you the audience who you deserve to have,” said Melville.

On the flipside, as a potential sponsored individual, you need to “put yourself out there so people know you exist, that you are hungry for change, and that you work hard,” Melville said. Most importantly, ask yourself what’s your driving force. (And make sure you have an up-to-date LinkedIn profile.) “Sometimes you don’t even know when someone has sponsored you until afterwards”, she said.

CMI president Bruce Carnegie-Brown joined the discussion, suggesting that our bosses need to be our sponsors as much as anyone else. As Melville added: “sponsorship is a leadership responsibility”.

A member of the audience asked how you know whether you’re ready for being sponsored. Sometimes you can lack confidence. Vallely suggested that you might consider sponsorship “when you can do your job with your eyes shut and when things feel easy”. Carnegie-Brown wondered whether men ever ask themselves such questions. “It’s a big issue for women if they don’t experience that confidence. Men blag their way. You need to put yourself in the way of opportunity.”

Woodfield took a slightly different view: “The reason we need gender-balanced teams is because women do ask those questions and men don’t”, he observed.

Another audience member asked what to do about their current organisation where as, a black woman, she was not being supported in starting any BAME initiative. This drew a straight response from Woodfield: “Please leave the organisation. Use your feet – we all have a choice.” Carnegie-Brown agreed. “You make your point to them and they will be the losers”, he said.

Drawing to a close, the discussion moved on to making sure that a sponsor lives up to expectations. Here, Heather Melville advised honesty; and making sure that, as the sponsored individual, you do the homework that your sponsor sets you. Vallely advised holding your sponsor to account by setting out clear and measurable goals and having a firm relationship structure in place.

It was an evening of invaluable, practical and inspirational advice.

Watch the livestream of 'CMI Women – Sponsoring Women’s Progression'


Listen to a recording of the event



“CMI Women – Sponsoring Women’s Progression” was held on 21 November 2018, part of a new series of “Cracking the Glass Pyramid” networking events aimed at promoting sponsorship as an effective way to propel women forward, particularly in the financial services, STEM and BAME.  The aim of CMI Women is to create the world’s strongest pipeline of women in management.

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