Contributed by executive coach Ann Daly, Ph.D.
HR pros have a saying: “You don’t push yourself to the top, you get pulled there.” Which begs the question: Whose hand is reaching out to give you a lift?
If the names aren’t leaping from your lips, then it’s time to take action. You need to assess, plan, and implement a strategy that will build your cadre of helping hands. Here are two strategic options to get you going:
The first strategy, recommended by Catalyst (a nonprofit membership organization working to expand opportunities for women and business), takes a singular approach: find a sponsor. In “Be Somebody—Get Sponsored,” Catalyst president and CEO Ilene H. Lang explains that a sponsor is a mentor with a difference: she actively advocates for your advancement.
Sponsors stick with you—they don’t ditch you at your first promotion. They protect you from enemies. They push the right buttons. They understand the Unwritten Rules. And they ensure you’re visible. In short, they shape your career.
Your ideal sponsor combines power and benevolence. She has the position, and she has all the connections and influence, but most of all she’s willing to expend her hard-won political capital for your benefit. Developing that kind of deeply trusting and intimate relationship takes a serious investment of time and energy. In the meantime, you may consider a parallel approach.
The second strategy, recommended by the Harvard Business Review, takes a more incremental approach: build multiple relationships through projects. In “Build Your Power Base from Small Beginnings,” Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer explains that most powerful positions start out small and grow in influence with “unspectacular” moves. More specifically, he concludes that:
What’s mostly required is showing some initiative and taking on projects that a) bring you into contact with a wide range of people within and outside of your organization; b) situate you in the midst of information flows; and c) aren’t coveted because they seem mundane or trivial — but not to you.
Pfeffer, the author of Power: Why Some People Have It and Some Don’t, argues that these three types of projects will bring you into contact with the people who can help you advance step-by-step. At the same time, they will also introduce you to potential sponsors.
Pfeffer shares the exemplary story of Melinda, who joined a large internet marketing firm:
She noticed that the firm’s divisions didn’t have much contact with each other or any organized way of learning about the evolution of the markets in which they were participating. So Melinda organized a series of seminars that brought internet and other subject matter experts into the firm to do briefings. As she recruited participation by people from throughout the relatively stove-piped organization, and built bridges between the firm and possible customers and partners, Melinda became highly visible — and much appreciated.
Whichever strategy you choose (and you may decide that the second strategy is a great foundation for the first), remember that the political capital you need in order to choreograph your career begins as social capital. For ambitious women, relationships are just as important as work product. Maybe even more so.
Ann Daly, Ph.D., is an executive coach, speaker, and author devoted to the success and advancement of women. Before reinventing herself as a coach, she was a journalist and then women’s studies professor. Dr. Daly is the award-winning author of six books, including Clarity: How to Accomplish What Matters Most and Do-Over! How Women Are Reinventing Their Lives. She has been featured in ForbesWoman.com, WomenEntrepreneur.com, Houston Woman magazine, Australian Financial Review, and Oprah & Friends’ “Peter Walsh Show.” Do you have a career question you’d like Dr. Daly to answer? Click here to email your career question to Dr. Daly.