What do Elizabeth Taylor, Oprah Winfrey, Chita Rivera, Abigail Adams, and Susan B. Anthony have in common? They all received a crucial career boost from another woman.

Throughout history, it's always been true that connections count. Today, as women around the world increasingly move into positions of power in politics and in the workplace, they are learning that one connection in particular is the springboard to success: sponsorship.

As I explain in my book, Forget A Mentor, Find A Sponsor, sponsors are powerful leaders who are willing to advocate for their protgs, and propel and protect them through the perilous straits of upper management.

It's easy to conflate mentors and sponsors, but there are important differences between the two. While both may offer advice and encouragement, mentors are essentially sideline cheerleaders, while sponsors are center-ring champions. Sponsors deliver: They make you visible to leaders within your professional circle--and to top people outside as well. They connect you to career opportunities and provide air cover when you encounter trouble. When it comes to opening doors, they don't stop with one promotion: They'll see you to the threshold of power.

The sponsor/protge relationship confers a strategic advantage for both parties. Sponsorship is a two-way street, and smart sponsors realize that the payoff for developing protgs is priceless.

In today's complex organizational matrix, no one person can maintain both breadth and depth of knowledge across fields and functions. But she can put together a posse whose expertise is a quick IM away. Some protges add value through their technical expertise or social media savvy. Others contribute fluency in another language or culture. Still others may help you advance the organization's goals through their ability to build teams from scratch and coach raw talent. Building a loyal cadre of effective performers can extend your reach, realize your vision, build your legacy, and burnish your reputation.

That's why organizations as diverse as the International Knowledge Network of Women in Politics and the 30% Club deliberately seed and feed sponsor/protg pairings among women to enable them to advance. They know that success is never a solo endeavor -- neither for protgs nor their sponsors.

More women are recognizing the power and potential of sponsorship. And that's a crucial lesson on this Women's History Month. Let's never forget the historical women leaders who were trailblazers and game-changers of our time. But let's also not forget the sponsors who gave them the opportunity to thrive in the first place and the need for women today to obtain that same wind behind their sails.

Published on: Mar 22, 2016
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