By:  Katya Andresen, SVP Card Customer Experience at Capital One;

A better answer: Women and the critical role of career sponsors

– At a recent speech I was asked about the role of sponsorship in women’s career paths. I responded that I considered it a moral imperative to sponsor other women and for leaders to mentor those who may not know where to find a helping hand.

It was an incomplete answer. It didn’t really do justice to why sponsorship profoundly matters or how to advance it. So I’m suffering a bit with “l’esprit de l’escalier” or “staircase wit” – when the right riposte fails you at the party, only to occur to you as you’re leaving the building. The speech is long over. But I have heartfelt feelings about this question, and so I thought I’d answer it more fully here.

There is a universality in connecting to each other through our stories. Sharing our stories binds us, builds trust and – if we are fortunate – allows us to collectively apply our diverse experience to accomplish great work.

Joseph Campbell, the late scholar of comparative mythology and religion, believed we all share the story of a hero’s journey, which has hallmarks that appear in everything from ancient myths to Star Wars: a call to adventure, a mentor, a series of tests leading to a great ordeal, a reward and a path back that allows the hero to help others.

Early in what Campbell calls the “monomyth,” a person is called to adventure but wavers at the prospect. Then a mentor appears — maybe it’s Yoda, a fairy godmother or some kind of guide or teacher. At this critical point in the story, as the veteran story consultant Christopher Vogler puts it: “Sometimes the mentor is required to give the hero a swift kick in the pants to get the adventure going.”

By this description, the mentor is truly a sponsor. If mentors advise you and sponsors advocate for you, then it’s the sponsor who pushes you to boldly answer the call. Many adventures would not happen – or would unfold more meekly – without that person. Whoever you are, wherever you are, we’re connected to this truth: a sponsor can fundamentally transform your journey.

There is ample data to support this idea for women in particular. Women in the Workplace, a joint initiative between LeanIn.Org and McKinsey, recently studied the gender-parity gap in my field of financial services.  Here’s the issue: In North America, women represent half of the entry level workforce in the industry but only one in five C-suite roles. A critical way to change that? Sponsorship, according to a survey of 14,000 employees at nearly 40 financial services companies as well as conversations with the small number of women at the top.

An overview of the research notes the important correlation in career advancement and receiving advice from senior leaders, which, unfortunately, early-tenure women are receiving less of than their male peers.

Kathleen Murphy, President of Fidelity Personal Investing, acknowledged the ease at which men, in general, take career risks for the reward of advancement and warns that the cumulative effect of career-long conservatism “is that you aren’t going to advance nearly as much as the person who takes risks.”

In other words, we sometimes hesitate to make a great leap because it can appear daunting. We fall prey to the pitfall of comparison, causing us to pass on the bigger opportunities.

Jacqueline Molnar, Chief Compliance Officer of Western Union, explained in the study how a sponsor jumpstarted her adventure: “When I was in my twenties, I had what I call a ‘first believer’—a man who said, ‘Why don’t you apply for this principalship?’ I had excluded myself in the typical way: ‘I’m too young. I haven’t done this before. I only hit seven and a half of the ten requirements.’ Having had that sponsorship, particularly by a man, was profound for me.”

Sponsors at work – of any gender – are like those of the monomyth, preparing our hero for the unknown. They, along with role models, help women see how they can succeed.

The McKinsey/LeanIn study concludes by urging companies to establish formal sponsorship for women. I agree and believe sponsorship programs are important not just for women but for all of us. They’re critical to promoting all forms of diversity.

I would add to these recommendations a personal commitment to serve as a sponsor. I can’t think of a higher calling than being the helping hand to an adrift adventurer. I want to do more for the many heroes among us who are wondering how to find their own ways onward and upward. Too many of them do not get the opportunity to be written into the universal story, but they should. They must. I am dead certain we’ll get to a better ending if they do.

Katya Andresen, SVP Card Customer Experience at Capital One