Putting sponsorship into practice

Sponsorship has become key to professional advancement, particularly for women. But what are sponsors, and how do you get one?

Nothing is by accident. It wasn't until I was sitting at the executive table that I understood the positive impact a sponsorship relationship had on my career. What is a sponsor anyway? And why did it take me so long to figure out I had one?

Hindsight is 20/20. When I looked back at my relationship with my sponsor a few things became clear: he had a vision for my future; he advocated for me at the leadership table; he made sure my accomplishments were known and seen; he gave me the hard feedback I needed to hear and he helped me improve my skill set.

What are sponsors? They are not the same as mentors; they are individuals with positional power and credibility who spot talent and are willing to do what it takes to advance you. Few people ascend within an organization without the support of a sponsor.

Reaching leadership roles remains challenging for many women. And the reason lies, in part, in a lack of sponsorship. Research conducted by Catalyst, an organization devoted to gender diversity in business, shows that women tend to have more mentors but fewer sponsors than their male counterparts.

Let's look at a common example of how the difference in sponsorship support affects decisions at the leadership table. Say a new position becomes available and both Mary and Jack are in the running. When it comes time to tell the CEO about both candidates, women are often positioned differently than men. Compare the message, "Have you thought about Mary?" with "Jack is a great guy mdash; he would be excellent in the role."

Mary may be as qualified as Jack but does not receive the same supportive positioning. This can have a profound affect on how the CEO will perceive each candidate: that's why sponsors are so important for women. They're willing to stick their necks out for you at the leadership table and position you as a future leader. Without this kind of active sponsorship from senior leaders mdash; the majority of whom are male mdash; women may not get the empowerment, exposure and experience that is needed for career growth. Studies show that sponsorship can boost the likelihood of stretch assignments, pay raises and promotions up to 30%.

What makes a good sponsor? While there is no single way to become a successful sponsor, and sponsorship styles vary by individual, sector and organization, there are a number of shared traits. Sponsors hold positions of power and are well connected. They provide access to the powerful. And it's not a one-time-only gig; they're committed to moving you forward. Sponsors know the risks and may be putting their careers on the line to push harder for your success. At the same time, they deliver honest feedback to help you prepare to take the next step in your career.

We may know the characteristics of a successful sponsor, but a few questions remain: how do you get one? And why don't we see these relationships unfolding for women more often?

Securing a sponsor isn't as easy as it sounds. These relationships are meant to happen organically, and that's not always easy when it comes to forming a relationship between a man who is in a senior leadership role and a woman who isn't. But if they care about talent and building the highest-performing teams, sponsors must step up to the plate and advocate for women's advancement, particularly in operational roles.

Sponsorship is about going above and beyond — doing what's been done before won't be enough to change the standings. Leaders must take a deliberate and proactive stance to sponsor women. Advocating for operational roles for women gets them one step closer to CEO.

About the Author

Fiona Macfarlane


Fiona Macfarlane is managing partner of EY's British Columbia practice and the firm's chief inclusiveness officer.

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