Q: In our ongoing pursuit to retain (and grow) women leaders in our organization, what is the role of adding sponsors to our arsenal? How do we go about creating these opportunities for talented women that we’ve identified as having high potential?
A: I don’t think it’s out of line to suppose that every woman, at least a handful of times during her career, has heard or read the often-discouraging news about their chances for advancement in corporate America. While the proportion of women in senior management roles is growing – to a record 31 percent as of 2021, according to Catalyst – the journey to the C suite often feels like a daunting or impossible one for many women in their mid-to-late careers.
Thankfully, more and more companies are attempting to take steps to remedy this through sponsorship programs – but even those well-meaning endeavors can be rife with challenges. HR leaders must spearhead these movements with a clear-cut understanding of what sponsorship is, how sponsorships can spearhead career growth for high-potential women, and what value these programs can bring to organizations when done well.
Mentorship vs. sponsorship
Many companies have indeed implemented mentorship programs but there’s also a reigning sense that members of organizations can just go out and get a sponsor. That is not the case; mentors help early- and mid-career individuals work through career issues and while sponsors can also do that, that is not their primary function in the life of an employee looking to move upward in their career.
This is an important distinction talent managers must understand because it will guide your implementation of sponsors into your arsenal. Sponsors are individuals that, because of their position within and outside the organization, have the power and ability to provide employees with opportunities. It’s a more formal arrangement and one that comes with an immense amount of social capital.
Women are often over-mentored and under-sponsored compared to their male partners, which can severely hamper their career advancement. That’s why HR professionals must remain intentional about the setup – and makeup – of any sponsorship program they establish.
Assess how your organization sees potential
If you’re seeing a gap in the upward movement of men versus women in your organization, that indicates a problem. But once you identify this trend, the next step is understanding there’s no single solution to this problem.
Assessing how managers and HR professionals within your organization view potential is an essential first step. Is there bias in how you’re identifying potential that excludes marginalized people like women, LGBTQ+ individuals and people of color? Is the model you’re using to assess potential informed by men? From those findings, develop some methodology your managers can use to understand the lens through which they should be looking at potential and offer them guidance on how to have those conversations with high-potential employees.
Giving managers tools to provide clear and actionable direction
Managers are vital to providing clear direction to women so they can position them for roles or projects that broaden their knowledge of the business. This approach provides women with visibility to other key leaders. Managers, especially male managers, often do not provide women with the feedback or guidance that sets them up for success.
A recent white paper published by the Women Business Collective, highlights how managers play a pivotal role in helping women feel empowered to advocate for themselves. In this way, managers can provide both constructive and aspirational feedback to not only improve current performance but also boost the prospects of future career growth.
Cultivating sponsorship opportunities
Having a sponsor can be incredibly important in retaining and advancing women, but women and HR executives need to cultivate those opportunities. A sponsor can give women the opportunity to have a real promoter in their court. Still, sponsors will only back women who have made an effort to contribute to the organization and show how they are adding value. Talent professionals must help women understand that they should not work in a vacuum because that will put them at risk.
But in many cases, stepping out of the vacuum isn’t something women can do alone, especially in workplaces where their work is consistently undervalued and underpromoted. This is where that examination of bias comes into play; if you find your organization is not allowing women to showcase their accomplishments and contributions, then it’s time to develop a plan to counteract that and help women reach their potential.
Showing women how to demonstrate their value
Regardless of their position in their company, it’s important that every woman be armed with the questions to ask that will enable them to understand and demonstrate their value to potential sponsors. While hearing from managers and HR leaders that they’re “doing a good job” is uplifting, it’s not informative. As a talent manager, it’s your responsibility to ensure managers are telling women what they do that brings value to the organization and telling them where they can grow their understanding of the business to create greater impact. And, for any women reading this, if you aren’t told this information, always ask!
As HR talent leaders, it’s our responsibility to look at the managers and the systems within our organization. But it’s also time to give women the insight they need to create a stronger support system for their career advancement. When women show up and are more active in the organizational conversation, sponsors will come and find them because they see their interests and willingness to contribute more. It’s our role to ensure every woman with high-growth potential has the chance to be seen in that light.