Are Women Mentored to Death?

[Previously posted on the Langely Harper blog]

One of the books on our summer reading list was Carla Harris’ Strategize to Win. After months of reading workplace help and self-help books from Ariana Huffington, Sheryl Sandberg, and a myriad of other white female corporate leaders’ take on work-life fit, it was refreshing to read (or at least place on our reading list) a book by an African-American woman who climbed through the corporate America obstacle course to become a vice chairman/managing director at Morgan Stanley.

One of the things that Harris has discussed in her previous work and trumpeted in her speeches is the need for women to have three types of key people in her career corner: an advisor, a mentor, and a sponsor.

These three terms are bandied about in most business, academic, and social setting.  In the academic literature, mentoring is a broad concept that includes sponsorship. As Tindall noted in a previous blog , “sponsorship is a deeper, intense, and targeted cycle of grooming and promotion. The mentor (the senior level person) is valuable to someone’s career progress because he or she provides upward mobility, visibility, and support to their proteges as well as fights to get someone promoted.”

Harris clarified her stance on mentors and sponsors in a New York magazine article, titled It Takes More Than a Mentor to Win at Work:

“A mentor’s job is to give you advice that is tailored specifically to you and to your career aspirations. They do  not need to be within your organization, nor do they need to look like you. But they must understand your context. Some of my best mentors have been peers. Frankly, you can survive a very long time in your career without a mentor. But you will not ascend in any organization without a sponsor. A sponsor is the person who, behind closed doors, will argue passionately on your behalf as to why you should get the great promotion, why you should get the outstanding bonus, why you should get that next-stretch opportunity.”

Academic research has validated up this idea of sponsorship. In a 2011 Harvard Business Review podcast and in a 2011 HBR article, Hermina Ibarra found that many of the corporate mentoring programs did not produce their intended effects. Rather than seeing a substantial increase in women being promoted in the higher echelons of the corporate hierarchy, women stagnated and suffered from being “mentored to death.”

This subtle yet distinct difference matters both to women who are aiming to climb the ladder and to those in management who are crafting the programs and building the mentoring relationships with those women. For those women aiming to rise in their careers, here are some questions for you: who in your network can you pinpoint as a mentor, sponsor, or advisor (a person who can be a resource about day-to-day tactical issues or concerns in your current position).

What roles are missing in your current network, and who could fill them? What mentoring and sponsorship relationships have you seen among your peers? Identify the traits and characteristics in those and search for mentors and sponsors who can provide those things for you. For those in corporate America who are helping to support women, here are some questions for you: What have been your experiences with mentoring? Do you want to replicate those relationships with others? What is happening with your women, especially women of color, after their entry into the organization? Are they leaving? Identify the reasons why they are leaving and what supports they need to continue in the organization.