Reaching the top: The key strategies for women in the corporate world

High Rise Buildings in the Canary Wharf Financial District
One-to-one mentoring is well known, but have you considered a group? (Source: Getty)

In recent years, more women than ever have stepped into leadership roles. In 2015, 26 per cent of FTSE 100 directorships were held by women, according to the Professional Boards Forum’s BoardWatch. However, while it’s great to see an increasing proportion of women in top jobs, it’s clear there is still much more to do. It’s not enough to focus solely on women already in senior management. Businesses need to look at female talent throughout their organisation, particularly those currently in mid-level positions, and find new ways to encourage and support them towards senior roles.

Mentorship and sponsorship programmes are key ways companies can offer inspiration and expertise to those who are working their way up the career ladder. Without this kind of support, women may find it more difficult to reach for the next level. But what might this look like in practice?

Building a support network

Predominantly, we think about mentoring as being a one-on-one relationship – but it can also work really well in a group environment, perhaps bringing 10 people together at once. Together with a colleague, I run one such women’s mentoring group at American Express. The format, based on Sheryl Sandberg’s model, is a “Lean In” circle, and in every meeting the group’s members get together and talk about things that have either come up in the circle or more generally – for instance, “how do I build my executive presence?”. Women have the confidence to ask the questions they need to ask in a safe environment. A mentoring group means members not only benefit from having a mentoring relationship with senior colleagues, but they build a network among themselves as well.

Finding a sponsor

Perhaps you’ve already progressed well in your career, and have successfully navigated the kinds of issues that a mentoring group might discuss. This is the point where you could benefit from a sponsor – that is, working with a senior woman in a leadership role who will play a more strategic role for you than a mentor. Where a mentor is focused on helping with your personal and professional development, a sponsor is an advocate for you within the organisation. Your sponsor could help you find projects and job openings that will allow you to advance, while publicly supporting your candidacy to secure your rise through the ranks.

Pay it forward

Even if you’ve climbed the corporate ladder and reached the management team, you aren’t finished with mentoring and sponsorship – it’s important to remember that many people helped you along the way. Now is the time to “pay it forward” and get involved in mentoring or sponsoring other women.

I have been fortunate to benefit from a scheme called the Pathways to Sponsorship programme, which has helped tremendously in my career. This scheme is part of a bigger Amex initiative designed to increase the advancement and retention of women in mid-level positions within the organisation, giving them access to senior female leaders who can help them follow in their footsteps, and assisting them to take on more challenging projects and move into senior roles.

This experience has inspired me to look for opportunities where I can help other women advance. For women aspiring to business leadership, the corporate world can have particular challenges. Working with mentors and executive sponsors, building networks and, most importantly, giving back to others who are growing professionally will help both you and your female colleagues develop – so the business world sees more women at the top.

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