Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor
Sylvia Ann Hewlett

By Julie Maines

The second YWE book club of the year proved to be both insightful and enlightening. May’s book club featured a discussion of Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s non-fiction novel Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor. Overall, the book club’s attendees were inspired by Hewlett’s ability to portray a clearly outlined plan for climbing to the top of the corporate ladder with the help of key individuals or “sponsors.”

Over wine and snacks at Swine and Sow, YWE members discussed how the novel impacted their plans for career progression. The group unanimously agreed with certain recommendations in the book, while other suggestions generated rich discussion. Below is a summary of the Book Club’s dialogue on May 2nd.

Sponsorship is a Substantial Commitment

Hewlett defined a mentor as more of an encouraging advisor, while a sponsor was someone who had a direct impact on career growth. During the deliberation on the difference between a mentor and sponsor, YWE members were surprised to learn how much more effort a sponsorship relationship takes.

Many in attendance noted that many companies advocate for mentorship programs, however few companies speak of sponsorship. Many YWE members had mentors whom which they thought were sponsors until reading the novel, when they realized the relationship was not as involved as that of a sponsor.  Most members had mentors who were strong role models, however few currently found themselves to have sponsors. Interestingly, even fewer members thought their current sponsor relationships fit Hewlett’s definition of a sponsor.

In the novel, Hewlett emphasizes the importance of ensuring your sponsor’s investment in you is worth their while, this includes meeting deliverables on time and going the extra mile whenever possible. As the book club attendees discussed what it means to be a sponsored young professional, we found that each person had a slightly different view. For some, the notion of meeting your sponsor’s deliverables at any cost seemed feasible. This notion was recommended by Hewlett, who used an example of a lady who missed her son’s first birthday to meet a deliverable given by her sponsor.  Others felt there was a strong line drawn in the sand between working hard for a sponsor and balancing work and life priorities. This side of the debate felt that although a sponsor does put their reputation and time into the process, that alone is not enough to sacrifice all other spheres of one’s life.

Inspired to Find a Sponsor

Although few attendees possessed sponsors, the novel inspired many to seek out a sponsorship relationship, and all agreed on the importance of having individuals in your network who could speak to your abilities and achievements as necessary for career progression.

Those in attendance felt they would like to seek out a sponsor, however they also felt that it was more difficult than perhaps the book implied. Many had previously found it to be difficult to break through the networking barriers faced by many women in today’s work force.  They observed that many of their male counterparts appeared to have sponsorship relationships, which were cultivated typically through after-work activities. A barrier many of the YWE members found was that these after-work activities conflicted with home responsibilities in addition to overall seclusion of these events to female coworkers.

The Book Club also echoed Hewlett in acknowledging the controversy often seen when a male sponsors a female, which can create additional barriers for women to gain traction when obtaining a sponsor. Despite these barriers, attendees remained optimistic about seeking out sponsors in their organizations.

Missing Smaller-Scale Applications

Most of the book club attendees came from small sized firms in which the notion of 2+ sponsors (recommended by Hewlett) that held positions at least two above them in the hierarchy of the organization felt unattainable.  While the YWE members could unanimously agree that fast-tracking your career with the help of a sponsor was desirable, the book failed to provide a realistic set of examples on how to do so. Examples of men and women in large multi-billion dollar companies that contained many tiers of leadership were not helpful, and the group had trouble relating these examples to their own companies which were often smaller in scale with fewer levels of hierarchy.

Peers as Sponsors

One exception to the perceived lack of tangible examples in Hewlett’s book was her example of four women from different departments all at equal career levels within a company who sponsored each other. This sponsorship eventually led to each of the four women being promoted. Book Club attendees enjoyed this example as it placed peers in the role of sponsors. This made the notion of finding a sponsor seem more attainable. Considering a peer for a potential sponsorship felt much easier than a senior leader, which all felt was an important message for women seeking sponsorship in the workplace.

The book club ended on an empowering and hopeful note. Many in attendance were inspired to seek out sponsorship relationships in their companies. The next book club will occur on June 13, 2017 with the novel Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. Be sure to sign up!