How to Be an Effective Sponsor
Research shows that advocating for women’s advancement at work has a direct correlation with improving not only a firm’s financial results but also gender balance and diversity in the workplace.
In my column last month, I talked about sponsorship as the most effective way to advocate for high-potential mid-level employees. According to research done by Forbes, organizations that have a formal sponsorship culture have reduced turnover (20% lower) and increased higher-quality leaders (46% higher). The research also found that organizations with women holding at least 30% of leadership roles are 1.4 times more likely to have sustained profitable growth.
So why aren’t more men sponsoring women? Well, it could be they just don’t know how. Leaders are taught how to share a vision, gain alignment, create a strategic business plan, make financial decisions and, of course, manage people. But they aren’t taught how to advance women and people of color.
In the Harvard Business Review article “What Men Can Do to Be Better Mentors and Sponsors to Women,” Rania Anderson and David Smith give us a road map. They have identified eight key steps that successful sponsors use to advance women’s and diverse candidates’ careers. They have found that “leaders who take these steps will become better, more inclusive and will improve their own results, the career of their protégé and the organization in which they work.”
- Identify high-potential diverse talent. Great sponsors are always on the lookout for people who have proven track records and, more importantly, who bring experiences and perspectives that are outside the ordinary. They seek out overlooked leaders and encourage others to look for hidden talent. Many will use HR to help them identify these candidates.
- Determine the best stretch role. Identifying high-visibility opportunities is critical to being an effective sponsor. Look for roles that involve P&L management, are high risk, work with strategic clients, or are of strategic importance to the business. Perhaps it involves starting something new or fixing a business problem.
- Position the role. Stretch assignments can be intimidating, so the sponsor needs to let the protégé know that the organization values the work they are doing and thinks highly of them. The sponsor has to ensure the protégé is excited about and willing to take the assignment. Here it is important for the sponsor to be on the lookout for “imposter syndrome,” which is a fear of being exposed as a “fraud.” People with imposter syndrome often feel that success isn’t deserved or they aren’t as capable as others. This syndrome can affect all of us at some point, but women tend to be affected more.
- Provide opportunities for development and support. Sponsors should insist that the right resources are in place to help their protégé succeed. This may come in the form of expertise, time and budget.
- Pave the way. It is extremely helpful when sponsors share their network with their protégés, introducing them to influential and powerful people in the firm.
- Ensure the protégé receives candid, performance-based feedback. Research from McKinsey shows that women consistently receive less feedback than their male counterparts and it is often not as direct and candid. Although sponsors might not be responsible for the protégé’s performance assessment, they must gain commitment from the protégé’s manager that the sponsored employee will receive direct, specific guidance on how to improve results.
- Help protégés persist. When a stretch assignment proves to be too challenging, the sponsor can make certain that the mistakes or failures do not derail the protégé. Stretch assignments are, by their very nature, challenging, and success takes more than one assignment.
- Champion promotions and recognition. When protégés are deserving, sponsors must be in their corner, advocating for raises, promotions and recognition.
Sponsorship is not just an individual commitment. Companies must play a role as well. Formal programs that clearly define sponsorship steps, behaviors and expectations create an environment where everyone can succeed.
Achieving this type of change in a firm should be viewed as a marathon, not a sprint. It will take time to see the results, but in the end, a strong sponsorship program will create a collaborative, innovative and open-minded workplace. And this, the studies show us, will result in greater profitability.