The need for sponsorship is now. (Here’s why)

By Briana Goldman on September 8, 2016

Organizations that support formal sponsorship create personal responsibility at the highest levels of the organization. This creates momentum and a clear path for the highest caliber team members to advance in their careers. The journey for women to leadership isn’t a cruise, or a tour. More accurately described, it’s a trek. And to successfully reach their destination, women leaders need powerful advocates to prepare them for the trip, help them navigate obstacles, and propel them toward their destination.

Executive sponsors are male and female advocates who are deeply invested in the success of select talent and take a vested interest in promoting a truly diverse and inclusive environment. Research shows that people with sponsors are 23% more likely to move up in their career than those without sponsors, and 44% of women with sponsors will ask their managers for a stretch assignment. In addition, a study of multicultural women revealed that 83% of sponsored women are satisfied with their ability to progress in their career.

Typically, sponsorship happens informally when sponsors tap protégés whom they have a deep and fundamental belief in to cultivate as a future leader of the organization. These sponsors act as the political campaign manager for their sponsee. They spread good news about her in the organization, create networks and connections for her, and lobby for her promotion. Sometimes this happens even without the sponsee’s active involvement.

Imagine if a relationship like this could be bottled up and given to every talented and driven woman within your organization. Imagine if sponsorship was embedded in your systems and embraced by your organization’s culture.

A Vicious Cycle
During recent consulting work with a leading automotive financial organization, I had the opportunity to explore support mechanisms for advancing women in leadership. Our primary objectives were to address a shortfall of female talent at the senior most levels and to effectively create a more forward thinking culture capable of retaining, nurturing, and developing emerging leaders. I found myself quickly immersed in fascinating research which overwhelmingly indicates that sponsorship is an essential (and often overlooked) component necessary to grow the number of women at the most senior levels.

The reality is that from 2012 to 2015, women have increased representation at the C-suite level of US corporations by only one percent and, according to a CNNMoney analysis, only 14.2% of the top five leadership positions at the companies in the S&P 500 are held by women. Furthermore, a 2015 survey by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey indicates that the problem isn’t exclusive to organizational leadership; women represent less than half of the corporate talent pipeline at every level.

Given all of the media attention in recent years and widespread efforts to address this at organizations around the world, how can this be so?

It’s because the system that is currently in place prevents women from advancing and is self-perpetuating. The cycle works something like this:

  1. Leaders attribute their success to the support and guidance that they’ve received from someone in a position of power and influence.
  2. The majority of those in positions of power and influence are men—and, they are more likely to support people they relate to, namely other men.
  3. Further, men support other men to avoid to the risk of what could be perceived as an inappropriate relationship with a woman in the workplace.
  4. Those who feel supported and are given guidance continue to advance to the C-suite.
  5. The cycle continues.

Sponsorship provides a clear and deliberate framework that ultimately helps create a more capable, aligned, and engaged workforce, regardless of gender. A healthy sponsorship program empowers sponsors and sponsees with the tools to establish mutually beneficial partnerships focused on driving excellence, creating new opportunities for growth, and fostering an environment of learning.

Does your company have a sponsorship program? If so, what has made it successful? Share your insight with us below.

Editor’s note: Briana will be facilitating a half day bootcamp on sponsorship best practices at Linkage’s Women in Leadership Institute on November 16, 2017. Join us to learn how to leverage sponsorship in your organization—starting now.

Posted in Blog, Inclusive Leadership, Leadership Development, Women in Leadership

About Briana Goldman

Briana Goldman is a former Senior Consultant at Linkage. She is passionate about driving a collaborative approach to consulting, working with her clients to co-create shared understanding and generate solutions in Organization Development. During her tenure at Linkage, Briana acted as a key innovator, contributor, and strategist to Linkage’s change management and advancing women and inclusion practices.
10 comments on “The need for sponsorship is now. (Here’s why)
  1. Natalie Goldman says:

    Perhaps women should be looking for other women to sponsor them.
    Interesting article.

    • Briana says:

      Thanks for reading my blog article! One systemic challenge for women seeking sponsorship is that there are not enough women in leadership – one way to begin to solve for this, is by engaging men in the conversation and asking them to take responsibility for sponsoring women.

  2. This message is very true. And shame on Corporate America. Leadership of men and women together strenthens the company’s leadership, improves the company’s culture and leads to more consistent, improved and sustained results. Women’s natural leadership skills differ from men’s, complement men’s, and are every bit as important.

    We need forward thinking men who understand this and will look for the women to sponsor.

    • Briana says:

      Hi John, you are so right and while the culture of our corporations is starting to become more inclusive and many organizations are shining examples of embracing diversity, we still have a long way to go.

  3. Susie Kelleher says:

    Great article Briana, thank you for shedding light on this very important issue and one that could be easily addressed!

  4. Margaret Clarkson says:

    Really liked your article, Briana. So glad you are communicating this need for sponsorship to become part of the fabric of an organization. It was interesting to see the typical cycle spelled out step-by-step. Acknowledging the cycle is the first step toward change.

    • Briana says:

      Thank you, Margaret. Change happens with taking a systemic view, and identifying when the system is set up to create barriers for women to advance. Organizations have a real opportunity to tap their leadership levers (in the form of formalized sponsorship) to create pathways to advancement.

  5. David says:

    Thanks Briana. I don’t believe I am alone (as a male) when I share this perspective. It may sound controversial but it is exactly what came to mind as I read your part about the vicious cycle. As a mid level manager working for more senior male leaders, my experience was that many senior male leaders liked to have female managers on their team.

    There is no question in my mind that I was not as welcome, did not get sponsorship, air time or the appreciation that my female peers got.

    I appreciate your article but there is often another side to a story and this is a complex issue.

    • Briana says:

      Hi David,

      Thank you for sharing your experience! I, too, have been fortunate to have both male and female sponsors in organizations I’ve worked for. On the flip side, I have also experienced trying thrive with a lack of sponsorship. Our goal is to take our best experiences and translate them into the reality for women everywhere, in every context.



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