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leadership lab

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

Building a successful career takes planning and preparation. But it also takes people. If you're like me, your own workplace trajectory has as much to do with your skills as it does with the influence of people who have played a role in your development. These people do more than provide friendly advice. They recognize your potential and provide sponsorship.

Sponsorship is a concept whereby a senior colleague advocates on an employee's behalf and guides them through high-profile career changes within the organization. Choosing to sponsor someone means more than just talking to them and offering advice – it's aligning your brand with theirs. It means championing that person, exposing them to people who could be important in their career, picking up the phone on their behalf, and advocating for stretch assignments.

I've been lucky enough to benefit from the attention, advice, and advocacy of some amazing sponsors. In fact, I connect the very reason I'm in my current position with one of my sponsors.

I recently moved to Canada to serve as the CFO at American Express Canada. I've been with the company for several years in a variety of roles in New York, but it wasn't until my sponsor encouraged me to look at my career from an international perspective that I began to see the possibilities of moving beyond borders. I had to bring the right skills to the role, but my sponsor's encouragement certainly helped me take the leap.

A few years ago, American Express partnered with the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) to explore the concept of sponsorship and the impact it has on career advancement for employees at all levels. This research revealed that qualified women may not necessarily get into the highest positions at their organizations in part because they lack the powerful backing necessary to inspire, propel and protect them through the often tangled matrix of upper management. In other words, women lacked sponsorship.

The study found that 36 per cent of women will ask their manager for a stretch assignment; however, if those same individuals have a sponsor, the number rises to 44 per cent. Additionally, without a sponsor, only 30 per cent of women will ask their manager for a raise, but if they have a sponsor, 38 per cent will feel confident enough to negotiate.

In response to this research, American Express became a strong promoter of sponsorship and created a program to educate employees about its value. We believe that it levels the playing field.

But not all organizations foster a culture of sponsorship. , Ask nearly any leader of a company, and chances are he or she will point to people as the organization's most important asset, so why not support a program which makes sure the employees with the highest potential are engaged in their careers? Sponsorship is a proven way to ensure those top employees are happy, invested in the organization and ultimately retained.

The benefits of sponsorship go both ways. As a sponsor to others, I've found it to be fulfilling to help people flourish. I also know that I'm making a positive impact on my company by making sure that talent is developing in the right way.

Loyalty is another important benefit: loyalty within the sponsorship relationship; loyalty between the sponsor and the sponsored to the company; and loyalty from the company in terms of a commitment to professional development.

True sponsors are selective about who they will devote their time to, so if you're looking for one, here are few tips:

  • First and foremost, do an excellent job. Sponsorship is earned, not given.
  • Raise your hand for new assignments and get involved in making your office a great place to work.
  • Once you’ve connected, commit to pushing yourself forward in your own career so that your sponsor knows his or her efforts won’t be wasted.
  • Communicate regularly with your sponsor – and not just when you need something.

If you invest your time into building the relationship properly, your sponsor will be there when you need him or her most.

Rosie Perez, CFO, American Express Canada