Sponsorship Drives Women's Professional Success, Study Finds

Don Tennant

In a June post titled "MBA Grad, Take Heart - Unless You're Female," I wrote about research that found that female MBA graduates earn less money and start their careers at a lower level compared to their male counterparts. According to Christine Silva of Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that promotes opportunities for women in business, and the organization that conducted the research, one factor accounting for that has to do with sponsorship.

 

Here's an excerpt from what Silva had to say about why male MBA grads were faring better:

We started looking at some of the reasons why that might be. We looked at mentoring and sponsorship, and the distinction between the two. A mentor is a person who provides advice and guidance, and that's very important for someone's personal and professional development. But a sponsor is critical for advancement. A sponsor is someone who has a seat at the decision-making table and advocates on your behalf when it comes to promotions or development opportunities. Sure enough, when we started digging into the numbers, it wasn't that women didn't have mentors, but that the men's were more senior. We found that what mattered was how senior that person was-the more senior your mentor or advisor, the more your career advances and your salary grows. That tells us it may be sponsorship that's making the difference-if that person is very senior and has that seat at the decision-making table, he may be in a position to advocate for you.
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Both parties need to take an active role for this relationship to pay off.

Now, Catalyst has released a report, "Sponsoring Women to Success," that provides some compelling insights into just how critical sponsorship is to accelerating a woman's career. Here are some of the key findings in the report:

 

  • Sponsorship matters, especially to women. "Good sponsors can supercharge a woman's career by providing her with access to essential networks, bringing her achievements to the attention of senior-level executives, and recommending her for key assignments," said Ilene Lang, president and CEO of Catalyst. "Effective sponsors also provide career coaching and guidance that enable proteges to make broader and more strategic contributions to their organizations." Previous research shows that women can be penalized for exhibiting self-promoting behavior considered acceptable in men but unappealing in women. Because good sponsors recognize and reward talented employees by speaking up on their behalf, sponsorship can help high-performing female employees subvert this double bind.
  • Sponsorship benefits sponsors, proteges and organizations. A protege's career is clearly enhanced by a good relationship with a sponsor. But sponsors benefit too - by establishing reputations as discerning leaders invested in talent sustainability, as powerful contributors to their organization's success, by learning from employees at every level, and gaining leadership skills that can further enhance their own careers. Sponsors also reported a sense of satisfaction from actively supporting the careers of their most promising employees. Sponsorship benefits companies by creating more effective and committed teams and fostering a "pay it forward" mentality that makes employees feel valued and supported.
  • Senior-level executives must recognize sponsorship as a necessary component of good leadership. Executives should understand what good sponsorship entails and how to use their influence to advance high-performing employees' careers, be vocal advocates for their proteges, and build a foundation of support that will ensure their proteges' continued success in the organization. Executives can become sponsors by paying attention to high-performing employees at all levels of an organization, including those who may often go unnoticed.
  • There is no silver bullet for attracting the attention of a high-level sponsor. The research shows that sponsorship is earned. To attract sponsors, employees need to make their skills, strengths, and work known to colleagues as well as senior leaders. They must build reputations as flexible, collegial professionals who are consistently committed to their own career development.
  • Smart companies create environments where sponsorship thrives. Companies must explicitly and transparently communicate an expectation of sponsorship to their executives. "We believe that sponsorship is something good leaders do," Lang said. "Companies that educate their employees about sponsorship, link it to talent management systems, and make it a hallmark of organizational strategy will reap tremendous rewards."


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