Sponsoring women to career success

The most effective way for companies to ensure their most talented women do not go unnoticed for promotions and plum assignments is through sponsorship, according to a new report by Catalyst, the US non-profit diversity group. 

The report, titled Sponsoring Women to Success, says sponsorship happens when an influential, well-placed person in an organisation actively supports junior employees by developing them, helping them receive more attention for their achievements, and recommending them for promotions. Sponsors also provide career coaching and specific advice.

But is this just the latest fad to bolster women’s careers? Heather Foust-Cummings, senior research director at Catalyst, says these kinds of relationships are often formed naturally in companies, but because their employees are disproportionately white and male, sponsorship most often happens between men. Smart women are frequently overlooked.

“Often when leaders are seeking to fill that next job, they look to someone who looks most like them,” says Foust-Cummings. “There is some attraction to seeing someone who reminds you of yourself and your earlier career. It’s natural to want to help that person get ahead.

“But our research says that in today’s competitive business environment, it’s imperative to look beyond the usual suspects. The goal is to see more women at the top, so if you are a high-level leader, you have a responsibility to look broadly, deeply and often at your talent pool.”

The aim of the report, which is based on interviews with nearly 100 executives and high-potential leaders around the world, is to “take the wraps off sponsorship”, she says. Sponsorship ought to be an “explicit and transparent” function of leadership at a given company, she adds, and “something that good leaders do”.

“The onus is on the company to communicate and set expectations around that. This should not be happening behind closed doors. Whether or not a company formalises a sponsorship programme really depends on that company’s culture.

“But regardless, the company needs to educate its workers about what sponsorship entails – what it takes to do it well, and how to link it to talent development through succession planning or performance reviews. It has to be embedded in the organisation as part of a talent development strategy.”

Foust-Cummings says sponsorship represents a “triple win”. Protégés get noticed for their achievements and, presumably, move up in the organisation more quickly; the organisation benefits by uncovering previously underused talent; and sponsors themselves gain insight into the lower levels of the company.

Plus, she says: “If you’re putting forth really good talent, that makes you look good. It shows you can identify, develop and advance talent. Sponsors also derive a deep sense of satisfaction for helping other people meet and exceed their career goals.”

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Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

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Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

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Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.