One benefit of robust internal networks is receiving both mentorship (a sounding board and advice from someone who is not the employee’s direct supervisor) and sponsorship (advocacy on a woman’s behalf with other senior leaders or in arenas where she cannot represent herself). These approaches—particularly senior-level sponsorship—are a high priority for women.
“A very senior leader adopted me early in my career because we connected and he spotted me having initiative and problem-solving skills,” said a woman who is now a senior construction leader in a development firm. “I was his assistant; we shared an office, which allowed me to observe him in all of his interactions. I learned everything from how to handle delicate political issues to organizing my work to follow-up on commitments from others.” This type of relationship is priceless and was described again and again by women during focus groups and case study interviews.
Gender dynamics can sometimes arise when senior leaders provide coaching, mentoring, and sponsorship to either men or women. Some senior-level men shy away from meeting one-on-one with women who are at an earlier stage of their careers. Some men expressed a fear that such a relationship could be misconstrued as going beyond a solely professional one.
A somewhat different cross-gender challenge was identified in terms of providing feedback. Said one woman, “A female leader in the firm who was not my boss told me ‘ditch the Minnie Mouse voice’ when presenting to clients and partners. I don’t think my direct boss, who is a man, felt comfortable giving me that feedback.” The organization encouraged all senior leaders to be aware of this concern and rise above it to provide equal coaching and mentoring to women and men.
While providing the opportunity to develop external networks was not rated as highly as other approaches to advance women, it was mentioned as critical for career development. One executive woman explained, “I did not rank this item as highly because this is one approach I can take largely on my own. The advice and feedback I have received from women and men outside my firm has been absolutely critical in my career.” Organizations can go a long way to supporting these valuable learning opportunities by encouraging membership in trade organizations as well as local and regional professional organizations.