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The Key to Moving Up at Work

Why you need to keep your friends close and your sponsors closer

Is it okay to use your relationships to get ahead at work?

I'm not talking about romantic or illicit relationships, but simply whether it's ethical to trade on friendships, or even to build friendships with the intention of using them for your personal gain.

According to the research, most women would say no, but most men would say yes.

Research from Catalyst and The Center For Work-Life Balance suggests that this difference in the way men and women view work relationships helps explain why, despite great advances in recent decades, women still lag behind men at the top levels of the corporate world. Research shows that men in large companies are 46 percent more likely to have a powerful sponsor than their female peers.

Sponsorship matters

A sponsor is someone with clout who actively advocates on behalf of a lower-level employee. Unlike mentorship, which can happen behind closed doors, sponsors may put their own reputation and business influence on the line in order to promote their protégé.

Having a high-level sponsor has been shown to be a powerfully effective tool for career advancement. In fact, the studies I mentioned above suggest that it is the most important factor in determining who advances to the highest corporate levels.

So what keeps women from having sponsors?

Women tend to be very good at forming relationships with people at work, but they view it as dirty or unfair to use those relationships to their advantage. Men, on the other hand, see work relationships much more strategically. They expect to use relationships to their advantage, and they expect others to do the same.

To combat this, some companies are introducing more open, formalized sponsorship programs. This makes sponsorship "safe" and more accessible to women and minorities. But even if your company doesn't have a formal program, you can position yourself to earn a sponsor the old-fashioned way through a few basic steps.

1. Be intentional. Know who the leaders in your company are and know what they're about.

2. Be visible. Show them your skills. Try to work with them on a project or give a presentation they will see. Seek out ways to engage with them informally. Do they play in the company golf tournament? Try to get on their team. Do they belong to civic organizations? Consider joining.

3. Capitalize. Good leaders will always be looking for capable "rising stars" to develop. When a leader gives you a compliment or comes beside you to support you, it's the best time to proactively ask them to be intentional about their support. You can do this without being boastful or arrogant. Be simple and straightforward—make it clear that you want to build leadership skills and advance in the company. Trust me, it goes a long way.

Early in my career at Trammell Crow, I had exactly this kind of opportunity with the CEO. Here's what I said to him: "George, I definitely aspire to be in the C-Suite of the company. I would appreciate any feedback as to ways I might improve, and I would appreciate your support if you think I'd be a good fit for any new opportunities that arise." He became my mentor and my sponsor, and undoubtedly helped shape the course of my career.

Do you have a sponsor or a mentor, or have you sponsored or mentored someone else? What has the experience offered you?

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Diane Paddison

Diane Paddison is a business professional and founder of 4wordwomen.org, local groups of professional working women committed to faith, family, work, and each other.

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