Forget About Mentors — Women Need Sponsors

The most ambitious women in the world still need sponsors. It's disingenuous for Sheryl Sandberg to suggest otherwise

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When Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s manifesto, goes on sale nationwide next week, women will at last learn what’s presumably eluded them for the past 50 years: success is a mind-set. Breaking through that pernicious glass ceiling requires unremitting resolve, the sort of pedal-to-the-metal drive that Sandberg insists accounts for her extraordinary career trajectory. If other women have stalled in their headlong rush for the C suite, she theorizes, it’s because they’ve held themselves back — “by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands and by pulling back when we should be leaning in,” she writes.

(MORE: TIME’s Cover Story, “Confidence Woman”)

But women’s ambition, Center for Talent Innovation research affirms, is not in short supply; nor can a lack of it be blamed for women’s failure to attain parity or power. Our data show that now, more than ever, women are going for broke, bringing home the bacon while raising kids in a society that’s ever more reluctant, in terms of public policy, to support them. Since the 2008 financial meltdown, we’ve seen workloads going up and “flex” vanishing altogether as these women struggle to retain a toehold in a shrinking economy. Their performance is off the charts, their commitment unflagging. And still they’re neither paid nor promoted on a par with men.

What accounts for women’s career stall is not a lack of push, we’ve discovered, but rather a lack of pull. After surveying some 12,000 white collar workers, interviewing nearly 60 executives and conducting some 20 focus groups, we can say with authority that what women lack is sponsorship.

Women are 46% more likely than men to be absent the senior-level advocacy that propels top performers into top jobs. They don’t have, as men do, someone in the C suite who will put their name forward and go to bat for them. When they do, our data show, they punch through: women with sponsors are 27% more likely than their unsponsored female peers to ask for a raise. They’re 22% more likely to ask for those all-important stretch assignments, the projects that put them on the radar of the higher-ups. The more progress they make, the more satisfied they are, and the likelier they are to lean in — a “sponsor effect” on career advancement that we’ve quantified at 19%. As we noted in Harvard Business Review last October, sponsorship is the one relationship you’ve got to get right.

(MORE: Judith Warner: Why Sandberg Matters for Real Women)

Larry Summers speaks during a news conference at the Asian Financial Forum in Hong Kong, China, Jan. 14, 2013.

Jerome Favre  — Bloomberg / Getty Images

Larry Summers speaks during a news conference at the Asian Financial Forum in Hong Kong, on Jan. 14, 2013.

It’s disingenuous of Sandberg to insist otherwise, given the caliber of her sponsor relationships. At Harvard as an undergraduate, Sandberg garnered the attention of Larry Summers. When he left for the World Bank, he made her his research assistant. And when he was tapped to head the U.S. Treasury, he made her chief of staff. (Sandberg was all of 29 years old.) At Google, Sandberg secured the backing of Eric Schmidt, who likewise ensured she got the stretch assignments that burnished her brand. Undeniably, she earned the advocacy of these men. But to insist to other highly capable women that her success was singularly achieved is to deny them the lever by which men have come to run the world.

Sponsorship works when women know to work it. Winning powerful advocates demands that women demonstrate three things: stellar performance, unflagging loyalty and a distinct personal brand. Senior men get behind junior women who show they can and will do whatever it takes to achieve Mission: Impossible. To be sure, this journey must begin with a dream: women need first to fix on a goal and indeed to lean in — to close skill gaps and to signal to potential sponsors their hunger and commitment. But without sponsors, our research shows, women lose their ambition to the steady undertow that home, children and community exert.

(MORE: Dominique Browning: More Ways Women Sabotage Themselves)

Resolve is a huge part of success. Finding ways to feed, sustain and leverage it, however, is what women need to focus on if they’re to follow in Sandberg’s footsteps. Behind every successful woman — and Sandberg is no exception — stands a cadre of powerful men. Come the revolution, look to who’s got your back before you step forward.

MORE: TIME’s Complete Coverage on Sheryl Sandberg