BBC Capital

Women and work: To get ahead, take a cue from Hollywood

About the author

Chana is a journalist based in New York City, writing about business, finance, and workplace life. She has written for The Wall Street Journal and spent more than a decade at Forbes, including three years as a Tokyo-based foreign correspondent.

An entourage is useful for celebrities and executive women. (Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

The right kind of entourage is useful for celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and executive women. (Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a three-part BBC Capital series on new strategies for women’s success in the workplace.

To move up in their careers, women might want to take a page from the movie-star handbook: find an entourage — and an agent.

Surrounding yourself with people who will protect you and, generally, have your best interests at heart can help catapult you to the next stage in your profession.

Call it a personal advisory board, of sorts. It’s a concept that more and more women executives have found useful for vetting ideas and helping solve career and work problems.

But it doesn’t end with the close-knit group. Women also need a primary advocate. That’s where a sponsor — the career woman’s equivalent to a movie star’s agent — comes in. That sponsor is a person found within their organisation who will advocate for them whenever their name comes up for a promotion or a plum opportunity.

In the new world of getting ahead, it’s not just about saying yes to big assignments (and getting paid for it) or networking smarter. Top women executives have found success by eschewing antiquated notions of mentoring as a key to climbing the ladder and embracing concepts like advisory boards and sponsors.

“You cannot make a decision without asking for guidance from others,” said Laura Pincus Hartman, a professor of business ethics at Chicago’s DePaul University.

A go-to ‘shadow cabinet’

A woman executive’s personal advisory board, also called a ‘shadow cabinet’, should be made up of an informal cadre of three to six professional mentors, friends, and counterparts, women and men, whom you can call with questions that you can’t ask your colleagues, she said. Hartman herself turned to her own shadow cabinet for advice when she struggled with a decision earlier in her career to leave DePaul for another job and then to return.

But, to be truly useful, women can’t shy away from asking their shadow cabinets about topics that seem too personal, such as compensation details, expat packages or interpersonal dynamics in the office. Hartman said women need to just “get over it”. It’s easy to make bad or unwise decisions without an outside viewpoint, making it worth your while to broach the difficult topics alongside the more mundane. Then shed your squeamishness at telling your best friend how much money you make, she said.

The idea of a board of advisers resonates with many women executives. Abbe Luersman, a top human-resources executive at grocery company Royal Ahold, stays in contact with Carol Kauffman, an executive coach and a professor at Harvard Medical School, whom she met at an executive-development program at her previous job as head of human resources for Europe at personal care product company Unilever.

Luersman phones Kauffman “if I want to bounce something around to someone who’s not in” her own workplace, she said. She also calls her counterpart at Coca-Cola, Ceree Eberly, the beverage company’s Chief People Officer, for disinterested advice, she said.

One place for future corporate executives to find shadow-cabinet members: business school. At the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, for instance, female students in the Masters of Business Administration program band together to put on conferences, events, and panels, where they can meet one another as well as alumnae now in the corporate world. But women can and should also connect at work events, conferences and through career-specialised networks.

Sponsors, not mentors

Becoming the protégé of a senior executive is a time-tested way to get ahead. Because men have often benefited from these kinds of relationships more than women, many large companies have formal programmes set up to connect junior women with senior managers for mentoring. But women are realising that even more important than mentors are sponsors, who take an active role in pushing a junior employee’s career forward.

Chantal Glenisson, Sallie Krawcheck, Julia Hobsbawm.

Chantal Glenisson, Sallie Krawcheck, Julia Hobsbawm.

THE NEW ART OF GETTING AHEAD: Read more...

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  • How one of Japan's top female executives made it big

Royal Ahold’s Luersman also has benefited from a sponsor, as well as her own personal board of advisers. A sponsor — someone male or female who backs you up and advocates for your abilities in front of others — has replaced a traditional mentor as the hallmark of a successful woman executive. While mentors offer advice, sponsors act as your personal spokesperson within the organisation.

Luersman found her advocate in Alexander (Sandy) Ogg, who is now an operating partner at the Blackstone Group. When Luersman first applied for an HR position at Unilever, Ogg (who worked in HR for Unilever at the time), was a vocal proponent of her abilities and promise. He later acted as a key reference when she interviewed for the top HR job at Dutch grocery company Royal Ahold, a role she assumed on 1 Nov.

Sponsors can be bosses who admire your work and continue to champion your career as you both move up, offering you advice and standing up for you even when you’re not in the room. They can also be senior executives that you seek out deliberately, at company events or just by making an appointment to meet. The key is to build a relationship of trust and confidence, so that the executive is comfortable asserting that you will perform well in new roles that are a stretch for you. (Of course, this requires you to turn in that high-quality performance — or you’re likely to lose your sponsor.)

Women frequently say they wish they could have more opportunities for sponsorship, according to Catalyst, a New York-based non-profit that studies executive women and leadership globally. Those who do have sponsors say they benefit from the exposure, said Deborah Gillis, the chief operating officer of Catalyst, who will take over as head of the group in January.

One female oil-and-gas executive, Gillis said, was under consideration for a position running her firm’s Indonesia operations. She learned later that senior managers had a discussion about whether she was ready for the role. Fortunately, she had a champion at the meeting who spoke up for her.

“Without that intervention, she would not have had that chance,” the executive later told her, Gillis said.

Chantal Glenisson, 54, is also a sponsorship success story. Now a senior vice president at Wal-Mart Canada overseeing all the retailer’s Quebec operations, Glenisson started her career at the Canadian grocery retailer Loblaw Companies Ltd, where she worked for 17 years before moving to Wal-Mart in 2006.

“When I started my career, retail was and still is a very male-dominated environment when you’re talking about leadership positions,” said Glenisson, who helped launch a women’s networking group for Wal-Mart.

Glenisson attributes much of her success to her long-time boss at Loblaw’s.

“Each time the company had a new challenge, he came to see me and said, ‘Chantal, you could do a good job here,’” she said, Not wanting to disappoint him made her work hard to learn new areas of expertise.

Glenisson won his sponsorship after a hard first year on the job, when she was told that “you have to prove yourself or you’re out.” After saving the company money, and outperforming her male predecessor, she said, her boss “really believed in me all the following years.”

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