Women Who Lead: A Guide to Making It to the Top

There’s no shortage of great leadership resources to help fuel your rise to the very top of your industry. It’s just difficult to sort the grains of wheat from the endless piles of chaff. Like many business women, your current workload barely leaves you time to breathe much less make a change that could help you get ahead. But still you try.

The advice you typically hear is “work more, work harder.” You’re willing to do that—just as soon as someone invents a way to add more hours to the day. Worry not, here’s a guide that will really help you sprint to the top.

Moving Beyond a Business Mentor

Mentors are great. They can teach you the ropes in the biz, new skills, and shortcuts. They can even guide you through company and industry politics. If you’re smart, you’ll engage several mentors, each capable of making you stronger in a different way.

The trouble is, once your mentors have given you their all, you’re on your own. You need to figure out which skills to use—not to mention how and when to use them—so that you can clear your own path to victory. That’s alright on the surface, and some women make it through on their own just fine. But for many women, mentors simply aren’t enough.

“I’ve learned that mentorship is the second prize: sponsorship is what really matters,” says MJ Petroni, CEO of Causeit, which he describes as “half futurist think-tank and half innovation-consultancy.” Petroni, trained in cyborg anthropology, is the Cyborg Anthropologist in Residence for NTT, the world’s largest telecom, and is also a founding advisor of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Digital Financial Services Platform.

Women and leadership

“I first heard the term ‘sponsorship’ at the BlogHer Business, Entertainment and Technology conference a few years ago,” says Petroni. “In contrast to the useful mentorship and coaching models, which are mostly about advice in a private setting, sponsorship is the concept of lending or giving other people tangible and intangible resources—such as reputation, connections, leads, money, or access—to help them get a leg up.”

Petroni says sponsorship can take many forms and offers a few examples:

  • Offering to host a meeting between a woman working her way up the ladder and the high-ranking client or executive with whom she’s trying to develop a working relationship
  • Offering tickets to conferences where you’re speaking and pointing her out from on stage as another expert to talk with at the break—or better yet, inviting her on-stage with you, or suggesting her expertise instead of yours
  • Co-authoring content to lend the weight of your personal brand to hers
  • Including her on calls with top contacts and highlighting her contributions and skills
  • Stepping back during a meeting and inviting her to lead
  • Bringing up issues of diversity and privilege so that she doesn’t have to do it
  • Assisting in contract or proposal-writing that an “insider” might better know how to navigate

“In any form, sponsorship is about lending the financial, human, and social resources you have to others and, like traditional sponsorship, putting something on the line for the person you’re sponsoring,” he says.

Men do this for other men frequently. They can also do it for women. But women can do it for each other. Petroni says he has had several people sponsor him over the years, and that he now sponsors others, too. He’s even made sponsorship a formal program in his company.

“We include sponsorship in the larger model of exchange that we have with our team members, and we provide it formally in their co-created professional development plans,” he says. “This formal structuring can be as simple as adding ‘writing an article together on Internet of Things and the Connected Home,’ or it can be more complex, like including conference attendance and warm introductions as part of the resources someone gets for working with us.”

Women Leaders Helping Women Lead

Choosing mentors and sponsors from different professional and social circles is important. But it’s just as important to look for ways that you can sponsor or assist other women.

“Women can help each other be heard,” says Elene Cafasso, an executive coach at Enerpace. “Many times men either gloss over a point a woman made in a meeting, or they say the same thing and act like they thought of it first. Cafasso offers an effective strategy.

“It’s very helpful for another woman or a supportive man in the room to say ‘wait—she just said that,’ or ‘we need to discuss her point before we move on,'” says Cafasso. Simple statements like these, she says, can completely change how people hear, perceive, and respect a woman in business.

Taking the role as sponsor also casts you as an established leader who helps other people develop professionally. Everyone wins. Sponsor relationships also play a vital role in growing your professional network over time. Regardless of whether you are the sponsor or the sponsored, those relationship bonds will be strong for years.

Women and Leadership: Defining Your Destination

You can’t create a road map without first defining your destination. You might say, “That’s easy. I want to go straight to the top.” Yes, of course, but to the top of what?

“Women need to be very honest about what they want,” says Melissa Lamson, CEO of Lamson Consulting, a firm that specializes in helping global companies bridge cultural differences, refine leadership skills, and communicate clearly and effectively.

“Is it money? Then go for money,” says Lamson. “Is it a title, stability, to make your partner proud of you? Figure it out, and write it down. Be clear about your target, create mantras or messaging around what you want, and go for it.”

In short, map out exactly what you want to happen in your career or business. That, in turn, will help you identify what mentors, sponsors, and other resources you need to get there.

You can also compare your map to the path possibilities that exist in your current position or business. Be prepared to change companies, change industries, change job roles, and anything else you need to do that will take you a step or more closer to your end goal.

“Working harder doesn’t get you ahead,” says Cafasso. “It’s working on the right things, cultivating the right relationships, and making sure the people who can influence your career know about it.”

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