How to Break Free from a Career Dungeon

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Many of us have been there. Ambitious go-getters, A-performers, those trying to change the world and advance our careers as rapidly as possible. Same time we hit our heads against the wall, feel helpless, unsupported and unable to get out of the “career jail.”

So is there any way out from a career dungeon? The answer is: yes, there are ways to advance the career in a preplanned and smart way. I have written before about the advantages of having a career manifesto and defining the career plans and goals. Today, I will focus on the practical aspect on “how to get there.”

First, if you want to advance your career, you should think about having both a mentor and a sponsor.

Mentors help you to gain skills, navigate through challenges and issues, offer advice, support and guidance. Mentors expect very little in return, if at all. They can help you grow professionally. Sponsors can power your career up and allow you to climb higher. They advocate on your behalf, connecting you to important players and assignments. They use internal political and social connections to move your career forward within an organization. Sponsors bring your name up in a high-level talent development discussions and argue your case. This type of relationship is an investment for the sponsor, and they are expecting a payoff. They put their neck on the line; this is why the sponsored individual has to make every effort not to disappoint the sponsor.

As KPMG US CEO Lynne Doughtie said, a mentor is somebody who will talk with you and with help professional development. Sponsor is someone in a position of power who will talk about you and help you to move up the career ladder and achieve career goals.

In the article, Why You Need a Sponsor—Not a Mentor—to Fast-Track Your Career,” for Business Insider, author Jenna Goudreau said, “Four recent studies clearly show that sponsorship—not mentorship—is how power is transferred in the workplace.”

So, how can you get a sponsor?

It is not an easy process to identify and gain a sponsor. Most likely you would like to hear something different, but the truth is, you need to earn it first. Bear in mind that often you do not get to choose the sponsor, the sponsor almost always chooses you. Sponsorship works as a two-way street. You have to be able to demonstrate outstanding performance and loyalty and make your potential sponsor look good. Sponsors see the advancement of your career as a way to help their careers and organizations.

You should target two, not one sponsor within your organization. If you have only one, that person might be too busy to help you, might get fired or take a better offer at another company. In large organizations, you want two, one in your line and one in a different department or division. You need to distribute your risk.

Here is the list of the key steps in the sponsor identification process:

  1. Select the right people who can act as your sponsor.

In the corporate world, a sponsor might be your boss or your boss’ boss. For an entrepreneur, sponsorship may come as a venture capitalist or contributor helping to build the professional network and helping to raise the money.

Target the ones who have influence, power and a strong position in your organization.

Women in particular often choose the wrong people. They seek out a senior person they are very comfortable with, for example, another woman or a collaborative male leader. The problem is, those are not the leaders with the power to promote promising women to the corporate heights. CTI research found that only 28% of men and women at U.S. companies say that inclusive collaborators represent the dominant style of leadership at their firm. 45% say the most prevalent model is the classic, authoritarian leadership style. 20% perceive their top management to be competitive types. Only 6% describe their boss as a charismatic and visionary. So due to particular female values, they seek and select the sponsor without real power in the organization. This mismatch leads to many women (40%) fail to find the sponsors who can deliver and ultimately, women waste their time.

Role models are great but as mentors. For a sponsor, you should go after the person with power, that you respect as a leader, but you do not need to like them.

Women also struggle with securing the sponsors for another reason. Senior leaders are in majority men, and they turn to the people they feel most comfortable with- that means other men. This way, they avoid potential sexual tension or incriminating outward appearance of close man-woman partnership.

Yet, despite the above, there are the men sponsors, genuinely believing in fairness, gender equity, and the development of talent in their organizations, which play critical roles in advancing women’s careers. Gender inclusiveness means involving both men and women in promoting women’s leadership. Many organizations have attempted to fight gender bias by focusing on women (offering training programs or networking forums specifically for them), but this is not a perfect approach.

The key male sponsors’ behaviors associated with gender-inclusive leadership that supports women’s career advancement are:

  • using authority to push workplace culture toward gender equality
  • thinking of gender inclusiveness as part of effective talent management
  • providing gender-aware mentoring and coaching
  • practicing other-focused leadership, not self-focused leadership
  1. Attract the attention of an influential sponsor.

Senior leaders are looking for three things: great performance, demonstration of loyalty and some unique value you can bring to the table that the leader-sponsor usually does not have. Here is how you can make yourself visible and attractive to them:

  • Deliver the excellent performance & shamelessly self-advertise

You have to build your reputation first. Nothing makes you easier to gain a sponsor than outstanding results. Keep your sponsor up to date about your achievements. If an organization can easily see your past and current successes, you will be in better position to gain powerful allies, a new big assignment or promotion.

  • Demonstrate your loyalty and trustfulness

Prove that you have your sponsor’s back. Share valuable information, offer your support, align your points of view before any public presentations. That will help to attract new sponsors and keep them involved in the long term.

  • Volunteer and take the opportunities

Build confidence in your skill set by taking new challenging tasks, projects and joining special task forces or committees the sponsor serves on. Show the sponsor yourself in action. This way, the sponsor will have the chance to see the quality of work you can deliver and collaborate with you directly.

  • Show you special value-bring something new to the table

First, you need to be self-aware and able to identify your unique skillset, preferably something your sponsor lacks. Something that makes you indispensable. Get involved in some community or professional organization that can impress the sponsor.

  • Define and communicate your career goals

You have to know what is your career destination. Leader-sponsor can help you only if you know your career objectives. You need to define and communicate those goals so the sponsor can match you with relevant opportunities.

Summary:

Unlike mentoring, the sponsorship is not a burden. Protégés are selected by the sponsors based on their past and current work accomplishments and also based on their overall potential. When a protégé is exceeding the performance expectations, shows the loyalty and the value-added, they drive the career of the senior leader-sponsor. Leaders who sponsor above mentioned type of protégés are 13 percent more likely themselves to get to the next level of leadership. On the other end, the protégé, gains the powerful ally, exposure to senior leadership, new business opportunities and a potential for rapid career advancement. It is an ultimate business win-win situation and most efficient way of resolving a career stagnation.

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