Fairer Economies

How 'sponsors' can achieve gender parity in leadership

Knowing how to attract and earn sponsors is critical to career success. Image: The Band of Sisters

Angelique Krembs
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Fairer Economies

  • The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report shows that achieving gender parity in leadership in business and government is a key lever for addressing broader gender gaps in households, societies and economies.
  • Research shows that access to sponsors is one key barrier to advancing women in the corporate world.
  • In the second part of this series from The Band of Sisters, we explore the value of sponsors, what they are, why they are vital to women’s careers and how more women can get access.

In the decades we have spent navigating corporate ladders, our group of female executives at The Band of Sisters have seen a thing or three. We all made it to the C-suite and boardroom and know we did not get here without help.

Yes, we have all had amazing mentors who advised, coached and answered our questions along the way. But of all the lessons we have learned the hard way, we wish we could teach our younger selves the concept of sponsorship because sponsors are the turbo boost for any career.

Image: Band of sisters

Knowing how to attract and earn sponsors is critical to career success. If more women were made aware of this fact and more male leaders actively considered the diversity of who they are sponsoring, it could help level the playing field among senior leadership.

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What makes getting a sponsor so critical?

There is a big difference between a mentor and a sponsor. And it’s one reason women fail to move into senior leadership roles, despite pouring into the corporate world at entry levels. The difference can be summed up in one word: power.

While mentors can provide sage advice, be a sounding board for career choices and provide emotional and personal growth support, they aren’t necessarily in the room making decisions about who gets the promotion or stretch assignment.

Sponsors, conversely, can put a name forward for a promotion, advocate for their readiness, lobby to get someone into a leadership role and have ultimate input over hiring and promotions. While both men and women have mentors, the research shows that men are likelier than women to have sponsors.

One reason women have less sponsorship may be due to the lack of women currently at the top of an organization. If men and women naturally gravitate to people like themselves for mentorship, women are less likely to luck into the power structure. Research also shows that male leaders in power, who often treat women with kindness and offer encouragement, too often fail them as vocal sponsors. Without sponsors, women are shut out of the leadership pipeline.

If the corporate world were a sporting match, a mentor would be the trainer helping you prepare; a sponsor is the coach who puts you in the game. Mentors speak with you and sponsors speak for you. And if no one is speaking for you, you stay on the sidelines.

Don’t expect a Hallmark movie

Once you are aware of the importance of sponsorship, identifying potential sponsors should not be difficult – just look at how power and influence flow in your company. Often it is easy to “follow the money.” If you are new at a company, make a conscious effort to understand how decisions are made and who holds the ear of decision-makers. A potential sponsor could be a senior person in your department but it could be useful to look cross-functionally to find influential people in partner functions.

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What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

Securing a sponsor is a whole other game.

Here’s what a sponsor feels like. Katie Lacey, former President/CEO of Crane Stationery, says in our book, You Should Smile More, “After I left Pepsi, I went to ESPN where I worked for a guy who supported me 110%. He made sure I was in the right meetings, put me on industry committees to increase my profile, and got me a very prestigious role in the company’s annual planning process.”

How does one earn this type of support? Unlike mentorship, it is not something you can ask for or secure based on having a comfortable repartee. What’s more, you cannot expect your work to speak for itself.

Research confirms that women are less comfortable with self-promotion and worry about the double standard against women for appearing too ambitious. However, to get a good sponsor, a protegee must be “seen.” When a potential sponsor notices your work, take the opportunity to follow up to talk more about it. If you notice someone naturally good at sponsoring talent, try to work on or with their team, get to know them and let them see your work.

Finally, don’t mistake kindness for sponsorship. A sponsor might not be who you expect, says Lori Marcus, former C-suite leader and current board director and executive coach: “It’s not like a Hallmark movie. The sponsor doesn’t put their arm around your shoulder and officially take you under their wing. I know, in hindsight, my biggest sponsors were people who were hard for me to work for. They pushed and pushed me, and what I didn’t realize is they were also pulling me up.”

If the corporate world were a sporting match, a mentor would be the trainer helping you prepare; a sponsor is the coach who puts you in the game.

Angelique Bellmer Krembs, Co-Founder, The Band of Sisters

The “coaching tree” legacy

We know there are a lot of well-intentioned senior leaders who believe in the power of diversity at all levels of their organizations. However, the problem is that the most effective sponsorships still seem to be the “mirror” version. Those are where an up-ladder man sees a younger down-ladder man who reminds him of a younger version of himself and plucks him out of the crowd. It’s much harder when these relationships must be reimagined.

Consider the analogy of head coaches in professional American football. Every year around the Super Bowl, we see coverage of the head coaches and all the protégés they successfully sponsored into leadership roles on other teams, referred to as their “coaching tree.” It points to a clear measure of success for a leader in football: not only should they have won games but they should have made the talent on their coaching team succeed.

Corporate leaders should rethink sponsorship through the lens of their coaching tree legacy and ask themselves: am I sponsoring a diverse set of people? If not, how do I proactively seek out deserving talent that doesn’t look like me?

For organizations, the effort should be systemic, where they ask: how can we ensure expectations around mentorship and sponsorship of a diversity of talent is explicit? There should be no confusion that women should be sponsored at the same rate as men.

For individual leaders and organizations, a conscious approach to sponsorship could step-change the consideration of women in leadership roles. As a legacy, what a great thing to be known for.

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