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Relationship-building is key to overcoming workplace hurdles, says Naomi Titleman, vice-president of human resources at American Express Canada.

According to a recent study, leading Canadian businesses can foster female talent and grow ambition among women at all levels of their organization simply by ensuring the proper support channels are in place.

The new research was commissioned by American Express Canada and Women of Influence, a Toronto-based professional advancement organization for women. It showed that while mentorship and sponsorship are still incredibly rare among female entrepreneurs and corporate workers (only 27 per cent of respondents had a mentor and 8 per cent a sponsor), women who have them are much more likely to believe they can land a top position.

Of the 1,200 female respondents, 70 per cent considered themselves to be high-potential employees. That number rose to 86 per cent among women with a mentor, and 89 per cent with a sponsor. Similarly, the number of women who believed they could make it to the C-suite (32 per cent) increased to 49 per cent for women with a mentor, and 60 per cent with a sponsor.

"The research shows that women without a mentor and/or sponsor are missing out on key relationships with leaders who could be guiding their career and advocating for their professional advancement," says Naomi Titleman, vice-president of human resources at American Express Canada. "While training, hard work and determination play an integral role in career advancement, relationship-building is crucial to overcoming workplace hurdles, especially for women."

Defining sponsorship

While both mentorship and sponsorship seek to improve a person's career by increasing their value in business, there are differences in the approaches.

Mentorship is guidance that helps employees fulfill a role or direct careers. For employees, a mentor can be a sounding board; someone who encourages an individual to aim for a higher rank at work. It can come from a variety of sources inside or outside the workplace.

Alternatively, sponsorship can help open doors by giving the employee an advocate among more senior workers. A sponsor takes action on behalf of an employee, with an eye for promoting their career within the organization.

Since the very nature of the relationship is that they put their reputation on the line for you, sponsors are difficult to secure and easy to lose, explains Titleman. Therefore, she says it's vital for women to seek out sponsors. It's equally important for organizations to open up dialogue about sponsorship and what it entails.

"Sponsorship has a big impact on aspirations and advancement," Titleman says. "Women must surround themselves with people who support their advancement – who can offer advice, encouragement, coaching, etc. They need to work to seek out sponsor-earning opportunities. This means volunteering for 'stretch opportunities' that encourage skills development, collaborating across teams, leading employee-engagement activities and identifying opportunities to showcase their good work."

Seeking out champions

"Women define success in so many different ways," says Stephania Varalli, Co-CEO of Women of Influence. "To support employees on their own unique career paths and to achieve their own version of success, it's crucial for organizations to encourage a culture of mentorship and sponsorship."

Although mentorship and sponsorship are fundamental to advancing women within an organization, Varalli says tapping into a larger network of women through events and programs can help create strong professional connections.

Mentorship can be particularly important in male-dominated fields, adds Kelly Lyons, a professor in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto.

"Any time you're a minority within a community of people, it's nice to have mentors that can help," Lyons points out. "There's this critical mass. It's not conscious, but you sort of see yourself more."

That same principle applies to senior ranks at any company: if women see themselves represented, it sends them the message they can get those jobs.

It's something that Titleman says American Express Canada is doing right. Today, 45 per cent of the company's senior leadership team is women.

"We do feel that role modelling is a serious part of the equation," she says. Titleman believes there's a role for programs that encourage mentorship and sponsorship, but companies must make sure they're receptive to what employees need.

That means creating environments where sponsorship and mentorship are practiced.

"There are systemic barriers in the workplace still today, so we need to do everything in our power to make sure that we have those advocates at the table," Titleman says.

"Providing mentorship and advocating on behalf of more junior colleagues as a sponsor is one of the most important jobs I have. I feel that it's my obligation as a senior leader to support people in reaching their full potential."

This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's advertising department. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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