“No one pulls themselves up by their own bootstraps. We need pretty heavy lifting from the outside,” said Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founding president and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, to the audience at one of a series of Power Talks sponsored by the Athena Center for Leadership Studies. A frequent guest on TV and radio, Hewlett was introduced by President Debora Spar, who also participated in a later discussion with her. The subject of the talk was the economist, author, and former Barnard professor’s latest book, Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). And it began with the story of Hewlett’s first sponsor—her father.

Hewlett grew up in a working-class family in a coal-mining region of Wales, at a time when the unemployment rate was as high as 38 percent. While her father continually prayed for a boy, she was one of six girls. Yet he saw something in young Sylvia and, despite the odds, pushed her on a track to a university education. “At 13, my father took me by bus to Cambridge University. He said if I worked hard, I could do it,” explained Hewlett. As wildly unrealistic as it seemed to her then, he was right. By the time she applied, Cambridge had become particularly welcoming to two new types of students: females and the underprivileged. “The admissions committee was bending over backward to admit kids like me,” she said. 

Timing aside, Hewlett’s success in school depended on encouragement that came from a sponsor. She described a sponsor as simply a person who believes in you and is willing to bet on you, advocate for you, and have your back. This should not be mistaken for a mentor. Hewlett added, “Mentors are usually friendly people with somewhat more experience than you. But they aren’t sticking their neck out for you.” Mentors may give advice, but a sponsor can directly impact your pay, ambition, promotions—and your company’s rate of retention. For women, the right sponsor can inspire a passion to go back to work after having children. Yet women, noted Hewlett, have three times as many mentors as men, but half as many sponsors. “This is the main reason we don’t progress beyond a certain point.”

In her research, Hewlett finds that men and women do not differ much in terms of aspiration and ambition until around age 29. This is the age when women—even those without children—tend to downsize their professional dreams. “We think this has to do with sponsorship,” she explained to the audience. If you are passed up for promotion or not challenged in your career, it’s easy to spend time and energy dreaming of alternatives. When women lack sponsors, they are more likely to experience career lulls. “Off-ramping,” a phrase Hewlett coined in a previous book to explain women who leave successful careers for a family, becomes an easy choice.

Even among executives at Morgan Stanley, she said, women tend to stall out at the managing-director level. To combat this, Hewlett explained how the investment bank created a monthly breakfast for female managing directors, giving them the chance to come together and work on problem solving for big-picture issues. It also allows senior executives to get to know these women and be in a position to sponsor and promote them. “If someone powerful believes in you, you have power,” said Hewlett.

President Spar admitted that after reading the book, she became aware of the many sponsors who had pulled for her throughout her career. However, these sponsors were not cultivated in a strategic way. So, asked Spar, how does one go about finding a sponsor?

Hewlett responded that the momentum often starts within the company. She cited companies such as Morgan Stanley, American Express, and HSBC, in which the corporate culture promotes the leadership benefits of sponsorship, thereby getting more executive-level employees to participate. When the initiative comes from the institutional level, there is less of a perception of favoritism or even scandal. HSBC even makes sponsors bring protégés home to meet sponsors’ families.

In companies lacking such a culture, would-be protégés should start by making themselves known to potential sponsors. Instead of approaching them directly, find out about their interests, initiatives, and causes, and proactively get involved in what matters to them.

If it sounds like a lot of work, it can be. Sponsorship requires much commitment from protégés as well as from sponsors. “Protégés have to be enormously intentional and proactive. They have to earn sponsorship. It’s not a gift or entitlement,” Hewlett said. “With a sponsorship, the person really has to believe in you. If you mess up, their reputation may go down the drain.”