Many women who reach the upper ranks of foodservice leadership owe much of their progress to supporters who have advocated for them over the years. And as more women strive to advance in the industry, they’re finding that these supporters—what the Women’s Foodservice Forum (WFF) calls sponsors—and all they have to offer may be key to success.

Though mentors and sponsors are sometimes viewed interchangeably, WFF representatives say, they provide different types of support. Mentors are an important part of career development for many women, but sponsors are the kind of people who can propel women to their dream jobs in the industry.

Angela Hornsby, chief people officer at pizza chain Sbarro and board member for the WFF, says a mentor is a trusted adviser who can help women think through decisions they must make, as well as help them get where they need to be. “A sponsor is somebody who can open doors for you and who will put their credibility behind you for you to have opportunities,” she says.

For many women, the importance of a sponsor doesn’t become clear until they’re passed over for a promotion they felt sure they would get, says Carin Stutz, former CEO and president of Deerfield, Illinois–based fast casual Così. She says that in a situation where a woman believes she has produced better results and made more of a contribution to the organization than the individual selected for the promotion, a sponsor who could have helped make introductions to the right people is probably the missing link.

Early in her career, Stutz discussed a position she planned to apply for with someone familiar with the power of sponsors. This person, she says, helped her understand that the executives deciding who would receive the promotion didn’t know enough about Stutz to recommend her for the job.

“It’s about your relationship with those decision makers,” she says. “Do they trust you? Do they seek your counsel for important decisions they’re making about the organization?” If a woman can’t say yes to these questions, then she probably doesn’t have a sponsor, Stutz says.

A sponsor also ensures that women will have the visibility they need for decision makers to consider them for the next promotion or strategic initiative. Mike Archer, president of Applebee’s Services Inc. in Kansas City, Missouri, and another member of the WFF’s board of directors, is a longtime women’s advocate in foodservice. He says sponsorship is all about exposure.

“It’s putting people in a position where the work they’re doing and the contributions they’re making are visible to other people in the organization,” he says.

Whether jockeying for a promotion or an important project, Archer says, women should make sure potential peers can see them sitting at the table. “It’s about finding opportunities to take on those visible roles that will allow them to demonstrate their talents and experience,” he says.

One of Hornsby’s early sponsors was instrumental in grooming her for a higher position within the company.

“She made sure that I got invited to meetings and [attended] her direct reports, because the biggest challenge for most people when they’re being groomed for an internal promotion is getting their peer group to envision that person sitting at the table with them,” she says. “It’s having them in the meeting to see how you think and what you bring. That’s what sponsors can do.”

Much of the power that sponsors wield lies in their insight into an individual’s talents, which goes beyond what many others in the organization typically know.

“They know that, from a chemistry and a cultural standpoint, you would be the right person for the job,” Stutz says. “They know you can work in a cross-functional team, and they know that you know the quickest way to get results.”

Archer says a key role of any leader is to advocate for talent and ensure that people are given the opportunity to perform, noting that brands benefit from strong sponsor relationships when the leadership group includes both genders. “People think about things differently,” he says. “It allows us to be able to make better, clearer decisions.”

Research supports that idea. Data released over the past several years by Catalyst, a nonprofit organization with the mission to expand opportunities for women, shows that companies with better gender diversity at the leadership level outperform those organizations in which women aren’t as well represented.

But being a sponsor isn’t just a way to provide women and men with career opportunities and to ensure a company is capitalizing on its best talent. In many cases, sponsors often get a career boost out of the relationship, too.

“You do it because it’s for the good of the company and it’s for the good of you,” Hornsby says. “You’re bringing forward talented people, and you have a track record of elevating people who succeed.”

To get the most out of the relationship with a sponsor, Stutz says, women should identify their career goals early, or at least develop a skeletal plan for their career path.

“Even if it changes, at least have some idea of a future position you want to achieve,” she says. “It’s a lot easier to help someone navigate their career path when they personally have some direction or passion about moving up the ladder.”

Once those goals are in place, sponsors can help individuals close any skill gaps while helping them become ready for the next position. They can also validate that they’re working on the right “big things,” Stutz says.

Business Advice, Employee Management, Story, Cosi, Sbarro