Women in tech: Stop seeking mentors and start searching for sponsors
Editor's note: The following is a guest article from Julie Cullivan, CIO and SVP, Business Operations, ForeScout Technologies.
The glass ceiling in the corporate world still acts as an obstacle for women working to advance up the corporate ladder. Although women have made many inroads to crack the glass ceiling, men can and should play an integral role in advancing women's careers.
Looking back at my own journey, one of the keys to my progression was seeking out not only mentors, but also sponsors — both men and women alike.
In Sylvia Ann Hewlett's book, "Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor," she explains the difference between a mentor and a sponsor and the importance of having the right person(s) in your life to help propel your career.
A sponsor uses his or her organizational influence to advocate for you and actively tries to advance your career. Mentors, on the other hand, guide you and provide advice.
As Hewlett aptly frames it, "mentors advise, sponsors act." In her study, 77% of female employees surveyed said hard work, long hours and education are what fuel promotions, while 83% of men surveyed said "who you know" counts as much as your job performance.
This stark contrast highlights why men often seek out sponsors more often than women.
My career path to chief information officer began non-traditionally with a finance degree from Santa Clara University. I was then able to get my foot in the door in the finance department at Oracle, where I quickly learned the importance of seeking out both male and female sponsors in order to carve out the career path I wanted.
For those looking to follow in similar footsteps, here are quick tips to get started:
- Demonstrate your worth by taking on the most challenging assignments that you can handle.
- Never get too comfortable. Remember to challenge yourself and expand your skill set.
- Always deliver high-quality work and collaborate with others.
- Believe in yourself and your abilities – don't expect someone to sponsor you if you don't have every belief you are up to the task and will make them look good.
- Be deliberate in your search and seek out leaders in areas you want to be working or have a particular interest in.
- Once you find your sponsor, don't be afraid to ask for and receive help.
- Don't constrain yourself to just one sponsor or choose a woman over a man, or vice-versa, just for comfort's sake, either. Target someone in a position to effectively advocate on your behalf.
One of my earliest sponsors at Oracle was a saleswoman who encouraged me to make the move to technical sales when an opening was available.
She took the time to pick up the phone and personally vouch for me during the interview process. At first, I was ambivalent knowing that sales had a hard-driving culture and that I did not have relevant experience, but it ended up being the right choice for me professionally.
From that first segue into sales, I progressed to multiple leadership positions within the department by confidently raising my hand and applying for opportunities.
Turning toward CIO
My career move from sales and operations to chief information officer was also driven by a sponsor, who this time happened to be male. When a CIO opportunity came up across his desk, he immediately thought how this could be the next step in my career and urged me to consider it.
He also instilled confidence in me by reminding me of my previous contributions and how my skills could transfer into this new role, while also encouraging me to take this risk.
I feared that I lacked the experience and expertise to move from sales into a role with responsibility for building the technical foundation for a company, but his support and faith in me made me realize that not only could I do it, but that I could succeed at doing it.
The question is often asked, "what do sponsors gain?" Sponsors get the benefit of creating a powerful network as they help women advance into leadership roles. Serving as a sponsor also bolsters the bottom line by bringing more diversification into the workforce.
The Peterson Institute for International Economics completed a survey of 21,980 firms from 91 countries and found that having women at the C-Suite level significantly increases net margins. As my career and influence has grown, I personally take time to mentor both women and men as they look for guidance, validation and feedback.
At the same time, I have sponsored individuals with endorsements, introductions and placements whenever asked, or on many occasions proactively, in order to pay it forward.
The glass ceiling continues to crack, make no mistake about it. However, there's still work to be done — according to Weber Shandwick's Gender Forward Pioneer Index, among the world's largest 500 companies, only 10.9% of senior executives are women.
If we are to make significant progress toward gender parity in the workplace, I encourage women to seek out more sponsors. Men and women in leadership roles should actively look to broaden their networks and ensure that talented women are considered for different roles.
I especially encourage every woman in tech to raise your hand, be confident and advocate on your own behalf.
In the words of Sheryl Sandberg, "leadership belongs to those who take it." We often say we're not ready, but you're never going to feel 100% ready for what comes next. Don't let this feeling eclipse your overall sense of confidence, ability and self-worth.