As leaders, it is critically important that we pause and reflect on the legacy we are passing on to emerging generations. How can we leave the industry better, stronger, more flourishing than we found it? What can we do to pave the way to unbiased, equitable opportunity and limitless potential for all who aspire to excel? And, from a practical standpoint, where do we begin? Sponsorship.
For the past several decades, we have begun by mentoring high-potential employees to give them the tools they need to fulfill their career potential. Mentorship has been — and continues to be — pivotal to career development, particularly for women and other underrepresented groups. When we advise, encourage, motivate and serve as role models for these individuals, we help them chart their own course for growth. In fact, mentorship has been such a powerful force that 86% of CEOs participating in a recent Vistage survey agreed that mentors had been critical to their career achievements.
Still, in recent years, we’ve come to recognize that we can play an even more instrumental role. By leveling our mentorship up to sponsorship, we can help protégés advance in their careers, while driving broader progress toward diversity — including gender parity. As sponsors, we go the extra mile of leveraging our own influence, reputation and platforms to advocate on our protégés’ behalf. We open doors, connect, promote and recommend.
When we shift our collective mindset from mentorship to sponsorship, we put well-deserving candidates in line for leadership opportunities that may have otherwise been out of their reach. We build more diversity into our teams — diversity of gender, culture, age, abilities, thought, style, personal experiences, etc. — which we know contributes to innovation, performance and bottom-line success. Our legacy, then, becomes how we strengthen our teams, our companies and our industry overall by simply outstretching our hand.
The Slow Crawl Toward Gender Parity
Let’s take a look at women as an underrepresented group in the workplace and see where we stand today in terms of leadership positions.
According to the latest Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey & Company in partnership with LeanIn.Org, women fill 48% of entry-level corporate positions, just a skosh shy of gender parity.
But as individuals are promoted to positions of greater authority and visibility, female representation declines at each successive level. Women represent 40% of managers, 36% of senior managers and directors, 32% of vice presidents and 28% of senior vice presidents. The most dramatic underrepresentation occurs at the C-suite level, where women hold just 26% of positions.
We clearly have a long way to go to reach gender parity, although some modest progress is being made. At the SVP and C-suite level, for example, McKinsey calculates that female representation grew 7% and 6%, respectively, from 2017 to 2022. Growth at the manager, senior manager/director and VP levels during that same time period was a mere 3% — less than a percentage point a year. Sponsorship can help us drive, and even supercharge, this momentum by putting the full force of our influence behind it.
Examples in Sponsorship
McKinsey has identified individuals’ first move to management as a common trouble spot. For every 100 men promoted to first-level manager in 2021, just 87 women were promoted to that same level. How might that disparity fade if every woman wanting to make that move into management were supported by a sponsor? Having someone in your court to say, “Hey, Sam, you should take a look at Susan’s achievements; she’d be a great fit for that open position” can make all the difference. Suddenly Susan, who may have otherwise been overlooked, is in the running.
Sponsorship gives deserving people visibility and credibility. When you have built a reputation — when people trust your judgment and value your opinion — you can bring others forward and give them the opportunity to shine.
I know this from personal experience. When I was starting out in my career, in my early twenties, working in a local government job in a Louisiana parish, I had a boss who would step back and give me the floor. I was making presentations and running meetings with council members because he believed in me and knew that if I were going to succeed and progress, I needed his backing.
While I knew all the federal regulations, background and history to speak intelligently on whichever issues were under discussion, being a young woman in that realm, at that time, was challenging, to say the least. By placing his confidence in me and projecting that confidence to others, my sponsor gave my career a kick start that made all the difference.
There were no formal mentorship or sponsorship programs back then like many companies (including my own) have today. Those programs can be fantastic, but don’t let the lack of a formalized program stop you from becoming a sponsor. Whether we are managers, directors, vice presidents or leaders of any kind, it’s our duty to mentor others and then to make that natural progression from mentorship to sponsorship.
When I use the term “duty,” I don’t mean to imply that sponsorship is some onerous obligation. Far from it! Mentors and sponsors reap valuable rewards from building these relationships, too: We can learn a lot from our protégés, and I can’t even put into words the sheer satisfaction that comes from sponsoring someone and seeing them advance.
One young woman who stands out in my mind worked on my team back in 2000. She was extremely bright but introverted and anxious. I mentored her, offering words of encouragement and helping her see the value she brought to the team. She gained more and more confidence, took on increasing levels of responsibility, and ultimately became an influential manager and leader.
When you see that spark in someone, and you can draw out their confidence and capabilities, and then connect them with a person or group who can take them to the next level in their career, you know you’ve made a positive difference in that person’s life. When they are also part of your company, you have the additional satisfaction of knowing you are strengthening your organization.
The Sponsorship Legacy
I am fortunate to work at a company where diversity is highly valued, and where male and female leaders alike are committed to mentorship and sponsorship. We know that the future of our company and our industry is in the hands of emerging leaders who bring exciting new perspectives, knowledge and skills to bear.
I feel honored to have the opportunity to mentor and sponsor some of these individuals. I’m delighted to make them aware of all that’s available to them — Have you ever thought about this opportunity? Did you know we have a CPA program? Have you considered taking advantage of our scholarship program? — and to support them and advocate on their behalf as they advance in their careers. Their success benefits us all in a variety of ways and for many years to come.
I often say that while mentorship is essential, sponsorship is invaluable. The more we engage with high-potential individuals in sponsorship relationships, the stronger our legacy becomes.
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