Updated: Mar 24, 2021
Unfortunately sponsors cannot be “found,” meaning you cannot walk up to someone and ask them to be your sponsor. Sponsorship must be earned! A sponsor must be willing to put their reputation on the line for you. While “finding” a sponsor is not exactly possible, there are ways we can be proactive in cultivating sponsorship. Here are strategies to help you connect with individuals with power who may be willing to sponsor you.
Step 1: Making Connections
Attend Conferences. Join Committees. Ask for introductions. Attend social events.
Once you have made some connections, make more! According to Patton, “Mentees should seek connections with higher-level leaders to cultivate sponsors as part of their mentorship team” (Patton et al., 2017). While this strategy discussed is an excellent approach if you are an established physician, it can be very difficult early in your career. For example, as a medical student undecided about her speciality, you do not want to try to develop connections with the chair of every department. An alternative approach during medical school would be to find a more “junior” sponsor who is still senior to you. Your sponsor could be a senior resident you worked with on shift during an externship who goes to the program director about recruiting you as a future resident.
Additionally, during training you can focus on developing meaningful connections with people who inspire you, specialty aside. This can be accomplished at any point in your career, and can lead to a lifelong mentor and sponsor. At times, this doesn’t even have to be a person at your own institution (see #girlmedtwitter)!
Step 2: Do Good Work
Doing quality work is likely the most important aspect of cultivating sponsorship. As we discussed in Part 1, while being sponsors, your work reflects both on you and your sponsor. Their reputation is on the line.
Be early--if the project is due Friday, turn it in a week early for review, and the final draft on Wednesday. If the meeting starts at 8, be there at 7:45. Be thorough--submit completed and reviewed projects. Don’t half-ass anything, let your personal qualities shine through your work, and your success will beget future success.
Excelling at a small project can lead to a larger project:
An expertly crafted tweet can lead to a blog post.
A well written blogpost can lead to a podcast interview.
An articulate interview can lead to a national presentation.
(This is a REAL life example)
The quality of your work will be monitored by those around you. You may not be sponsored to the next step if your work is not of a high caliber.
Step 3: Be Visible Dr. Stiegler discusses the importance of being visible, doing good work (“Sponsorship 101: Finding and leveraging sponsorship for career development,” 2018). Dr. Stiegler discussed this topic on her debut sheMD post Show Up And Be Seen.
Without knowledge of your interests, it is difficult for a sponsor to suggest you for opportunities that fit your goals and aspirations. For a sponsor to know HOW they can help us, they need to know WHERE we need sponsorship. Self promotion is essential to career advancement in nearly every arena, but women do less of it (and often think their work is lower quality). Women often take the “put your head down, work hard, and someone will notice” approach; men talk about their successes.
We need to talk about the great things we have done, and amplify what the women around us have accomplished. In the Rotenstein article, the authors found that even though women were half of the residency program and OVER half of the leaders, informal “shout outs” about publications and other academic successes far disproportionately highlighted the men’s work even though program leadership wasn’t consciously aware of a gender discrepancy there. They found that much of it was due to men more actively telling others about their work, and this affected the way word spread (Rotenstein, Berman, Katz, & Yialamas, 2018). This is a relatively easy fix: talk about your achievements, talk about others achievements. Amplify the women in your workplace who are going above and beyond.
Imposter syndrome is everywhere (like here and here) but we need to work on acknowledging how great we are. Try this: have your parent and your best friend write an introduction for you and read it. This is how we should be introducing ourselves--through the lens of someone who loves us.
Step 4: Just Ask
As Dr. Vineet Arora and Dr. Marjorie Stiegler discuss- sometimes you need to just ask for opportunities (Arora, Flores, & Cardin, 2018; “Sponsorship 101: Finding and leveraging sponsorship for career development,” 2018). Dr. Stiegler absolutely practices what she preaches--during a recent #WomenInMedicine Twitter chat, Dr. Stiegler asked Dr. Dara Kass of FeminEM to be a guest on the Feminem Podcast.
For those without particularly outgoing personalities, asking can be uncomfortable. Especially for trainees, the combination of imposter syndrome and a genuine lack of established career can make it even harder to figure out what you “bring to the table” when pursuing mutually beneficial relationships. It is tempting to think: “What would I, a puny medical student, have to offer to a mid-career physician? Or to this publication? They probably have tons of people bothering them already.” It is so easy to disqualify yourself before even opening up to the possibility of rejection. Further, even once the relationship is established, many women are very reluctant to ask for anything out of fear of seeming “needy” or “demanding.”
To deal with this, try to remember two things. First, (for the most part) the worst the person can really do is say no - in which case the person making the request is in exactly the same spot as they already were pre-ask. Rejection stings, but no real loss occurred. Second, sometimes the only difference between you and all the other people who COULD do something is that you chose to go out and do it. So reach out, ask for that opportunity, do the thing!
Once again, we want to be clear, you can’t just ask someone to be your sponsor. You can, on the other hand: make connections, do good work, be visible, and ask people in power to consider you for opportunities (such as publications, presentations, committees, and awards). The decision to act is on the sponsor, but knowledge of your interest may turn them into your sponsor!