Get to the Top Together: Five ways women can elevate each other through peer-to-peer sponsorship.

September 26, 2016

This post originally appeared in US News & World Report, here.

download-5I met Alyse Nelson in my late twenties when I was a young associate at a law firm and she was a young State Department staffer. Now I am the president of the national nonprofit Running Start, and Alyse is the CEO of the global nonprofit Vital Voices. Over the almost 20 years since we first met in a meeting where we were the youngest people in the room, we have taken every opportunity to help each other get to the top. I have nominated her for awards, and she has nominated me for awards. She has spoken at my events, and I have spoken at her events. When we have difficult business decisions to make, we call each other to talk them over. We introduce each other to helpful people, and we invite each other to strategically important events. I can’t count the number of times Alyse has introduced me to people by saying, “This is Susannah Wellford, President of Running Start. You should know her – she does great work!” And I do the same for her.

This type of peer-to-peer sponsorship is incredibly important. It not only credentials a rising leader as someone to pay attention to, it also helps make leadership less lonely when you can rise alongside a colleague instead of climbing the ladder alone. Different from traditional sponsorship or mentorship, peer-to-peer sponsorship is something that you can start doing right away in your career to elevate your friends and colleagues and to get the support you need to rise. Men already do this for each other (think meetings on the golf course), and we should get smart about doing it too.

Here’s a blueprint for concrete ways you can sponsor the women coming up beside you:

Amplify. The Washington Post had a great piece last week on how senior women in the White House “amplified” each other’s opinions in high level meetings: “When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution – and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.” So make sure you speak up to support your colleagues, both in professional and social settings.

Repost. When a Facebook or LinkedIn contact of yours posts an article or an accomplishment, repost with a positive comment. Better yet, post something positive yourself when you hear good news about a peer’s success. Most women still are not as comfortable touting their success as men are, so you can help by posting for them.

Nominate. When you see a call for nominations for an award, nominate a woman in your network. Nominating someone is not a short process, but if your peer gets the award it can be life-changing for them. Take the time to nominate your peer and make sure to tell them when you do. Even if they don’t win, they’ll know you truly support them. Google “nominate a woman” to see dozens of opportunities.

Invite. When you are invited to a work-related event, ask for a plus one and instead of bringing a date, bring a woman in your professional network. Having a date at a networking event is stressful anyway – you should be there to meet as many people as possible which is hard to do with someone on your arm. The key to success in politics and business is networking and being in the right rooms. So help a colleague out by bringing her along and then talking her up to the people you meet.

Recommend. When you are asked who would be good to sit on a panel, attend an event or fill a job, put the women in your network forward. Positive word of mouth goes a long way, and when you promote your peers, you help to get their names known. Remember that “binders full of women” comment from the 2012 election? Well, you actually should have your own binder full of amazing women at the ready when you are asked, “Who would be good for this?”

The great thing about all of these tips is that if you do these things for your peers, they will reciprocate and do them for you. Leadership for women has for too long fallen into the “crabs in a barrel” trap: If only one woman can get to the top, she must do whatever she can to hold the rest of the women down. We are better than that. We need to pull each other up each step of the way so that we can make it to the top together. And an added bonus: Along the way these peers who you support often grow into your closest friends.

Susannah Wellford
founded two organizations to raise the political voice of young women: Running Start (which she now leads) and the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee. Susannah previously worked in the Clinton White House and for Senator Wyche Fowler. Ms. Wellford is a graduate of UVA School of Law and Davidson College. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her twins, Ben and James.

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