Why are employers from CH2M Hill to Deutsche Bank to Citibank adopting formal programs to foster sponsorship of high-potential employees?
Because it’s good for business. Sponsorship has long been a staple of corporate culture: A senior executive spots a talented protegé and ensures he receives the opportunity to demonstrate ability and grow into leadership. The sponsor helps him navigate corporate politics and etiquette and advises him on how to successfully manoeuvre through complex situations, especially at management level. Typically, sponsors and protegés share similar backgrounds and interests.
But that’s changing, as corporations seek to reflect the diversity of their marketplace in senior management and recognize the power of sponsorship in achieving that goal.
A recent study by Catalyst, Sponsoring Women to Success, suggests that despite similar advancement strategies and career aspirations, sponsorship is what makes the difference between men’s and women’s ability to compete successfully, especially for top jobs.
For women, who are often invisible to the formal and informal networks that truly count, a sponsor provides that vital advocacy at senior levels and the impetus to break through the barriers to advancement.
Sponsorship can be a mighty leveller of the playing field. Catalyst research has demonstrated female MBA graduates earn US$4,600 less than male MBA graduates in their first positions after business school, and never catch up throughout their careers. Women whose mentors are highly placed, however, are just as likely to receive promotions — and the visibility that leads to promotions — as men.
Clearly, access to the most influential networks at an organization plays a role in promotion and sponsorship is the avenue into those networks.
The benefits for protegés are obvious: visibility among senior executives and decision-makers and the opportunity for higher positions; support in working through unfamiliar challenges; and advice on making broader, more strategic contributions.
And sponsors also see benefits. In addition to personal satisfaction, they gain a reputation as discerning leaders, invested in retaining and developing talent.
Many sponsors interviewed by Catalyst suggested the connection with someone at a different level or different unit provides valuable intelligence on what’s going on at the organization. As one woman put it, “It helps me keep connected with the undertones and the culture of the environment in the business.”
In addition, several sponsors noted they developed new understandings and skills through interaction with their protegés.
The positive experience of a sponsor-protegé relationship, with its attendant trust and open communication, strengthens the effectiveness of a team and enhances the leadership skills of both parties. Equally important to the success of, and succession in, the business, a positive sponsorship reinforces the loyalty of both the sponsor and protegé to the organization.
But the approach to and nature of sponsorship vary widely. Some companies feel it’s part of corporate culture and the relationships evolve naturally as senior managers’ model their leadership behaviour on that of their own sponsors or other role models at the organization.
This provides no guarantee sponsors will actually emerge or that protegés will include those who do not look like the existing leadership. And despite goodwill and sincerity, not every senior manager is naturally a great sponsor.
So businesses such as CH2M Hill, Deutsche Bank and Citibank have established initiatives — many of which target the advancement of women to senior executive level — that support both sponsors and protegés to achieve corporate objectives. Deutsche Bank’s Accomplished Top Leaders Advancement Strategy (ATLAS), for example, includes regular assessments that help sponsor-protegé teams identify and focus on specific areas. In addition, participants discuss topics such as the difference between management and leadership or the board of directors’ decision-making process. In a nod to the “pay it forward” concept, ATLAS participants are assigned as informal mentors to new female managing directors in the bank.
Businesses that establish clear expectations for sponsorship as part of leadership responsibility — linked to talent management, performance reviews or succession planning, — ensure sponsorship is available to a broader corporate talent pool.
This encourages corporate leaders to be more strategic and inclusive in their choice of protégés and enriches the relationship for the benefit of the company. It also leads to a greater diversity of talent and perspective at senior levels — a requirement in a rapidly changing marketplace.
Sponsorship is one of the best ways to reach the senior levels at any organization. Formal programs can remove roadblocks that have kept women and minorities from that path — and ensure the best and brightest find their place to shine at your company.
Deborah Gillis is the Toronto-based senior vice-president of membership and global operations at Catalyst, a non-profit membership organization dedicated to expanding opportunities for women and business.