By Dawn Siler-Nixon
Diversity & Inclusion Partner, Ford & Harrison LLP

It can be especially difficult for women and minorities to rise through the ranks in corporate America. Historically, having a mentor gave you an edge—someone who would act as a teacher/counselor; a guide through the tangled web of unwritten rules, secret handshakes and bureaucracy. Although having a mentor is helpful, an executive who will put his or her reputation on the line for you is invaluable. A sponsor takes responsibility and therefore credit for advancing your career. This person has a vested interest in your success.

Many types of mentoring programs, whose purpose is to advance the careers of women and minorities, have been largely unsuccessful. Companies are gravitating towards sponsorship relationships and networks. It is important to create connections in which a sponsor is willing to go to bat for his or her protégée, be an advocate, and champion your advancement.

If your goal is success, get a sponsor. Finding a sponsor depends on building relationships, through connections, commonalities and a community of interest with a company leader. Map out your career goals. Define your success. Where will you be when you retire? What role best positions you for opportunities? Write it down. Research potential sponsors and build a relationship. Introduce the relationship by saying yes to work, volunteering for the sponsor’s project, serving on that person’s committee/organization, attending an event he or she supports, or finding a commonality you share. Use creative opportunities to expand the relationship and show your tenacity and potential for success. Ultimately the sponsor will invest in you and be willing to stake his or her reputation on your success.

If faced with a choice, I would say bypass the mentor and find a sponsor. Sponsorships may grow out of mentoring relationships, but more often, a mentoring relationship will develop from sponsorships.