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Navigating Career Growth as a Woman (Part 1) - Lessons from “How Women Rise” and Sponsoring Power

Updated: Nov 29, 2023


Yes, there is a lot of research, data, blogging, vlogging about the topic of “how women get promoted in the workplace” out there. And I reference some of this research myself, while strongly encouraging you to deepen your own exploration. This post has 2 parts (like a good TikTok) and it is meant to:

  1. talk a bit about a book I recently read, titled "How Women Rise" by Sally Helgesen and then extract one of the things I am most passionate about from it – Sponsorship – and then...pigeon-hole-it;

  2. allow me to share my personal experience with career promotion, the lessons learnt, the sabotaging thoughts I had, the things I did to “get away” from them and the steps I took to actually grow.

So, you may say, it’s more of a personally-educative post. I will, however, give you a glimpse at that research too ('cause I am nerdy like that).


Part A: Lessons from "How Women Rise" by Sally Helgesen & without a doubt my favourite tip: career sponsorship.


I read this book in between 2 other books, arguably, all on “self-improvement” / development. Ah, and one novel I like to read just to take my mind off things. Yes, I am one of those people who tends to read 3 things at once. To remember things, I need to underline (a lot) and to take notes (thanks “Goodnotes”).


My 5 takeaways:


These are the things I took out from this book (by the way, it’s a great read, easy to grasp and with clear messaging through practical advice in case you want to give it a try)

1. Identify your own limiting beliefs and try your best to get rid of them

  • We get in our own way a lot of the time by allowing the inner critics to take over and Sally gives us advice on how to recognize the myths that our mind keeps regurgitating, disprove them and ultimately get rid of them;

  • What do you think of yourself and what you're capable of? Consider whether these views are accurate and helpful. If you can, jot down any limiting thoughts that come to mind and then question them later (I won't get all psychology on you here 😊; use the notes app on your phone to take notes).

2. Connections!!

  • Do you have a mentor already? How about a sponsor? How about your professional inside and outside the company network? (We’ll go into nerdy mode on this later);

  • Try to get to know your co-workers, seek for mentors who can provide guidance and support, and hunt for opportunities to work with influential people who will speak out for you.

3. Assert yourself (this one made me giggle as, in my own experience, it usually turns into “she’s too blunt” or “she’s too aggressive” but hey, I live and learn and overall, I truly consider this point to be important, relevant and true)

  • Speak up for yourself;

  • In meetings and other professional settings, don't be hesitant to express your ideas and opinions and make sure they are heard. (there is a ton to be discussed here, but it’s not the point of this post).

4. Stretch. Yourself.

  • Seek out opportunities to learn new skills and take on new responsibilities, even if they make you feel uncomfortable or unsure;

  • Try to grow your knowledge and abilities in ways that will help your team or organisation, not just you.

  • Make sure to prioritise your professional development, and be clear when articulating your objectives and aspirations in an open and genuine manner, while asking for feedback and help to achieve your goals.

5. You 1st. The human and not only the professional.

  • It could not be a self-development book without reminding us that “yes, that’s all nice and shiny, but to what good if you end up burnt out?” so: take care of yourself. Be mindful of your boundaries and express them – make time for life outside of the corporate spiral;

  • This connects to the “ask for help” above – in order to care for your own wellbeing, ask for people to carry some of the weight of your tasks.

  • Try gratitude exercises and meditation if they fit your personality (I wholeheartedly recommend the app Calm and Tamara Levitt’s voice) and any kind of exercise (being it walking, cleaning, silly dances or whatnot).

All of the above, I found to be true. I, however, did things backwards, first I struggled through my own career development and promotion and then I read this book or any compelling material to help me do things differently (#facepalm).

Having said that, is it sufficient to read this book and apply its learning?

  • No.

Is it, however, easy to do?

  • Absolutely not. (sorry)

But I do believe that it is yet another great tool to have and use it to support yourself when going through the motions for either a pay rise request, a push for a promotion, or simply for making a name for yourself inside your organisation. Not everyone has aspirations of becoming VPs until the age of 40 and that is perfectly fine.


(Now I have no option but refer back to Kim Scott’s book, “Radical Candor”, which identifies two types of high-performing employees: rock stars and superstars. Both types of employees are talented and driven. The difference is simply how quickly they plan to climb the corporate ladder. Rock stars are a source of stability within the organization. More on this maybe in a different post.)


I wanna geek out a little bit on one of the topics which appeal to me the most from the above 5: Sponsorship vs. Mentorship.

The rest I’ll share in Part 2 of my blog post when speaking more about my personal experience.


Sponsorship VS. mentorship

Sponsorship is more formal than mentorship is (first and foremost).

 

A sponsor is “an influential leader who openly and privately advocates for you, recommends you for highly visible or stretch assignments, supports you in risk-taking, helps you build relationships with key influencers, takes a vested interest in your career path and helps confront and interrupt bias.” according to Terry Barclay is the President & CEO of Inforum.

 

On the other side, mentoring can take place internally at your own firm, externally, through your own network, with a former coworker you admire and appreciate, with a person you find inspiring through a site like #TheMentoringClub, etc.

Mentors are helpful, but they have different functions. Despite maybe not necessarily holding positions of authority, they provide guidance and coaching. You could choose a mentor who is an authority in your particular field to help you develop new skills, find solutions to issues, etc.

 

“Mentoring is an act of generativity—a process of bringing into existence and passing on a professional legacy” write W. Brad Johnson and Charles Ridley in „The Elements of Mentoring, a metastudy of the practice.20“

 

I personally have mentors from outside the company I work for, some I knew of from my previous company, some I found through the above-mentioned platform. This will be something for you to decide, you know what works best for your style and personality.

I’ll root here for the sponsoring part prior to all else.

According to Barclay (cited above): “research has shown that having a sponsor provides the most direct path to career advancement, particularly for women“.

Why would I recommend focusing on sponsorship immediately? Well, one – because I did not and I regretted it and two, keep reading.

I’ll start with a quote from the World Economic Forum #wef , one of the most vocal institutions when it comes to closing pay gaps and gender equality:

 
Excerpt from the World Economic Forum
Excerpt from the World Economic Forum about pay equality
 

How do you find a sponsor in the first place?


If you're fortunate and have excellent leadership around you, senior management may observe you and you may get hand-picked. (pst – you can also become a shining star and push for this “hand-picking” by:)

  • becoming an authority in a particular field; sponsors will want to collaborate with you since you are thought to be excellent at what you do and they can gain from your expertise;

  • if you are closer to the beginning of your career, try becoming indispensable. And no, this does not mean working 60+ hours a week. It may mean a willingness to be proactive and take on more, showing attentiveness, drive, and ownership.

I was not “lucky” to be hand-picked so I had to ask for it (thoroughly enjoyed that “impostor syndrome“ moment. Not.)


And why did it matter that I did get a sponsor?

  • they usually notice in you skills or abilities that you may be blind to, this, in turn, helped me develop my confidence;

  • it helped me get more connections (strategically) across the company;

  • they discussed me on forums that I was not a part of, letting others know about several of my abilities and successes while also celebrating my achievements and rooting for me.

It is, of course, insufficient to find a sponsor, shake hands and hope for the best. Sometimes, your sponsor can be your own manager, other times, it may be a “neutral sponsor” or someone from the business you collaborate with (think of other internal departments).

If you ask for sponsorship you need to first know “why” you ask for it.

  • what do you want to get out of it,

  • why do you ask THEM for it,

  • what are you willing to bring to the table,

  • whose advice are you open to following, etc.

Sponsorship and mentoring will not suffice. Not for your growth, nor your promotion. Most of the work we put in ourselves. Hence, the book recommendation at the top of the post (ahem). Sponsorship, mentorship, are basic “construction materials”. To finish a project, you use them just like any other item in your toolbox. The project in this instance is likely to be your promotion or pure career progress.


There is a 2010 HBR, 85 pages long research article under the title of “The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling“, written by By Sylvia Ann Hewlett, with Kerrie Peraino, Laura Sherbin, and Karen Sumberg.

It is 2010! A hell of a lot has been written since then and still, it's accurate - in my opinion, and there are lots of pertinent details there that can be examined in more detail. I’ll happily share a copy with those who ask for one.


HBR Article 2010 - “The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling“
The definition of sponsorship in the form of a relational tree

I also wanted to share more about the term nonpromotable tasks but I’ll leave this to the experts. #mckinsey published a wonderful interview with Lise Vesterlund, where they discuss the book “The No Club” by professors Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, Lise Vesterlund, and Laurie Weingart. It talks about how the majority of dead-end jobs can hinder women's careers, negatively impact their organisations' productivity and profitability, and finally contribute to an ongoing gender advancement gap. Go ahead and read the interview if this appeals to you 😊.


McKinsey research quote about non-promotable tasks
McKinsey research quote about non-promotable tasks

In conclusion, what do we have here so far?

  • 3 books recommended;

  • a bunch of practical tips from book no. 1 “How Women Rise”;

  • a couple of prompts for you to consider when choosing mentors vs. sponsors at work and why that is important;

  • a cliffhanger on nonpromotable work and on a 2nd part of my blog post where I share a case study of “how to and not to manage your career growth” based on my humble experience.


If you get anything out of this post, get this: regardless of the level that you are at now, invest in you and invest your time in finding a mentor and even better, a sponsor, inside your organisation. Invest time in reading, listening, watching and apply the snippets of wisdom which make sense for you. Just don't do - nothing -. Hand on heart that every little effort you put into your own promotion and development, pays off.

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