I grew up in a family of six sisters in a bleak corner of Wales. Across the coalfield, the mines were closing down; unemployment hovered at 28 percent. When I was a young girl, there was not much to look forward to: Maybe you could grow up and marry an unemployed miner?
But my father, a working-class bloke, had big plans for his daughters. When I was 13, he took me to Cambridge, in England, to show me one of Europe’s most beautiful and distinguished universities. “If you work hard, you can go here.” His voice was hardedged. “I promise you, girl, Cambridge University will change your life.” I was mesmerized.
My dad’s advice was simple enough. But was it realistic? What chance did I have of getting in? I attended a third-rate middle school. I had little knowledge of the world. Until this trip, I had never eaten in a restaurant or stayed in a hotel.
Fortunately I got an offer of unofficial help from Gwen Jones, my high school English teacher. She told me that I had potential and that I reminded her of her young self, and she guided me through my studies, offering valuable advice. I was grateful for her practical help, but even more so for her belief in me. And her faith paid off: I won admission to Cambridge. Even at the time, I knew that I hadn’t done this on my own. I owed much to my dad and Miss Jones.
Given that experience, you’d think I’d never forget the value of having advocates. But I did. When I started my first job as an assistant professor of economics, I spent little time cultivating senior faculty members. I thought that my advancement was all about doing my job well. (I’d won awards for teaching and writing.) Still, when I came up for tenure, I was passed over. Why didn’t I understand that I needed someone who would help me, especially at the beginning stages of a super-competitive career?
As I regrouped and attempted to figure out how to reinvent my professional life, one thing was certain: I now realized that climbing the ladder in any field required heavy-duty support from a senior person with heft and influence—a sponsor. A sponsor is someone who has faith in your potential and is willing to take a bet on you, who actively advocates for your next promotion or position, who encourages you to take risks and has your back. Mentors are wonderful. They support you, offer empathy and a shoulder to cry on, and build your confidence. But when you really need a career boost, mentors may not be enough.
Finding such a sponsor wasn’t easy. But eventually I lighted on Harvey Picker, the dean of the School of International Affairs, at Columbia University. I’d come to know Picker through my teaching, and he was a great fan of mine. We even shared a Portuguese-language instructor and a love of Portuguese folk music. Just after my tenure debacle, I met with him and came directly to the point: Could he help me find a new position? He was not merely responsive; he opened a couple of important doors for me, which was all I needed. A month later, I started a brand-new career as the executive director of a nonprofit. It’s possible I could have gotten that opportunity without Harvey—but it would have been much harder and taken longer. That’s why I now tell every woman who wishes to ascend to a higher rung on the career ladder to find her own sponsor. No one in this world can accomplish great things if they don’t have a powerful person in their corner pulling for them. It’s a lesson I have never forgotten.
Sylvia Ann Hewlett is the CEO and president of the nonprofit Center for Talent Innovation, in New York City, and the author of 10 nonfictionbooks. This piece is adapted from her latest, Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor, which will be released September 2013.