top of page
  • Julia Taylor Kennedy & Pooja Jain

Sponsors Need to Stop Acting Like Mentors

Sponsorship, or advocacy by senior leaders of rising talent, is a hot topic within corporate America. Deloitte’s board chair, Mike Fucci, talks about it openly; Cisco has run a sponsorship pledge campaign called the “Multiplier Effect”; dozens of other companies have implemented sponsorship programs; and many (if not most) diversity and inclusion practitioners cite sponsorship as a key intervention to diversify top leadership.

But something is keeping sponsorship from working. In our recent research at the Center for Talent Innovation, we found that sponsors themselves don’t really understand the role and how to do it well. This insight came out of a nationally representative survey of over 3,000 U.S. professionals across many career levels. In our survey, we asked respondents whether they are sponsors, what they do for their protégés, and what their protégés do for them, which helped us understand sponsors’ investments and their dividends.

We discovered that many who consider themselves to be sponsors are acting more like mentors. To claim the title of sponsor, a senior leader should be an active advocate for their protégé — a more junior professional who the sponsor sees as a top performer, with tons of potential, who deserves to move up in their career. A sponsor has three primary responsibilities: to believe in and go out on a limb for their protégé; to use their organizational capital, both publicly and behind closed doors, to push for their protégé’s promotion; and to provide their protégé with “air cover” for risk-taking. This means shielding the protégé from critics and naysayers as they explore out-of-the box ideas and work on stretch assignments to set them apart from peers. Yet only 27% of our survey respondents who identified as sponsors said they advocate for their protégé’s promotion. Even fewer (19%) reported providing their protégé with “air cover.”

We also found evidence of “mini-me syndrome” — sponsors reported a tendency to select protégés who reminded them of themselves. A full 71% of self-identified sponsors said that their protégé shares their same gender or race. This isn’t all that surprising given that unconscious and affinity biases drive us to seek the company of individuals who make us feel comfortable: those who share our race, gender, upbringing, culture, religion, and so on. But this kind of selection presents a roadblock to wider-spread sponsorship for underrepresented groups. White male leadership — still a clear majority in Corporate America — self-perpetuates, while diverse talent is kept outside of the C-Suite.

One way sponsors can break the mini-me pattern is to prioritize difference — perhaps a unique skillset or distinct personal brand — as they consider potential protégés. When a protégé brings complementary talents to the table, they can expand a sponsor’s capacity to deliver, open doors to new networks and markets, and contribute a valuable management style to the team. Yet sponsors simply aren’t focused on this. Only 23% of sponsors in our survey said they look for potential protégés with skills or management styles that they do not have themselves.

Another important finding was that even practiced imperfectly, sponsorship still carries dividends. Sponsors in our sample were more likely than non-sponsors to report being satisfied with their own advancement, being engaged at work, being able to deliver on “mission-impossible” projects, and having a bench of talent that expands their skill sets. This makes sense. When a professional begins to cultivate an “A-Team” of protégés, they can be more effective, more efficient, and signal to themselves and senior leaders that they’re ready for the next step in their career.

To understand the full dividends of good sponsorship, we conducted several interviews with top business leaders who speak openly about the role sponsorship has played in their own success. We wanted to get a more intimate insight into the sponsor/protégé dynamic, and we asked for detailed examples of times executives benefitted from performing the role of a sponsor, especially on behalf of protégés with different backgrounds from their own. Two important examples of what they’d gained from sponsoring stood out:

You can build deep trust with your protégés — and get honest, unvarnished feedback from them. As Booz Allen Hamilton’s CEO, Horacio Rozanski told us, most of the feedback he gets has “so much bubble-wrap around it you can’t tell exactly what’s inside.” He craves straight talk, and he gets it from his protégé Jen Wagner. Initially, Rozanski decided to advocate for her because she shares his values. “I don’t need to know people socially to feel comfortable sponsoring them,” he said. “But I do need to know they stand for the same things that I do.”

When he met Wagner, he knew she was smart and driven— all of his colleagues at a certain level are, he points out — but what struck him was her tenacity and ability to rein in big egos, traits she developed in part as a single parent. After asking around and confirming her integrity from colleagues, Rozanski knew Wagner would make a worthy protégé. When he was appointed COO, he selected Wagner to serve in a newly created position, Director of Operations, that required a high level of skill and which solidified their intense bond of trust. He wanted to propel Wagner’s career while hewing to the merit-based company culture of BAH and avoiding. He helped Wagner become acquainted with other high-powered executives, so they too would see her value to the company when a promotion became available or it was time for a pay raise. Now, as a Senior Vice President, she continues to report directly to Rozanski, which gives her many opportunities to deliver that feedback that’s so hard for him to come by.

Your protégés — and your commitment to sponsorship — can extend your legacy. When former EY U.S. Chairman and Managing Partner and EY Americas Managing Partner Steve Howe retired in December, he left behind more than a legacy of great work. Through his work with countless protégés, he left in his stead a cadre of leaders to carry his approach, which includes promoting sponsorship, forward.

“I knew [sponsorship] helped me, and so as I took on more responsibility, I realized that that investment in sponsorship was going to be important to others,” Howe reflects. “I tried to take that on myself and then to build it into our culture in a meaningful way that our people would understand it and invest in it — both those being sponsored and those doing the sponsoring.”

Howe met one of his many protégés, Kate Barton, when she was in her first management role with the company. When she was passed over for an anticipated promotion, Howe took the time to reassure her that he, and the company, recognized her value; when the job again became vacant he coached her on how she could influence the board and win the spot. Through this process, he earned Barton’s loyalty to himself as her advocate, and her loyalty to EY, an organization she felt confident would support her career development. Howe gained a protégé he could trust, and one who understood the value of going out on a limb to keep great talent engaged at EY.

Now in her 33rd year at EY, Barton serves as the Global Lead of Tax Services. She has taken on many protégés of her own, and even worked alongside Howe to sponsor junior employees. “We’re all about legacy,” Barton shared. “That’s what Steve created, and that’s what I want to do as well.”

It’s wonderful that sponsorship has taken root in the business world’s zeitgeist. But rather than close the book, it’s time to push harder to ensure sponsors, protégés, and organizations all understand this crucial relationship and its nuanced dynamics. When both protégés and sponsors recognize the benefits of playing their roles right, and of partnering across lines of difference, sponsorship’s potential to bring deserving employees of all identities into leadership can finally be realized.

Courtesy : Harvard Business Review


Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page