The value of mentoring

Some say the best way to help a woman rise up the corporate ranks is to pair her with a seasoned mentor who will bestow his knowledge and share his hard-earned experience with her. But Beth Brooke, global vice-chairwoman of public policy at Ernst & Young, doesn’t buy it. She says:

“Mentorship gives people the excuse of thinking they are making a difference.”

Instead, Brooke is a believer in sponsorship, which she describes as “active participation in a younger person’s future, with skin in the game”. In a previous blogpost, I defined sponsorship as an influential, well-placed person in an organisation who supports a junior employee by developing them, helping them receive more attention for their achievements, and recommending them for promotions.

Without active sponsorship from senior leaders – the majority of whom are male – women will not have the exposure, and experience they need to get ahead, she says, and yet sponsorship doesn’t happen often as naturally for women as it does for men.

“I was talking to some guys on Wall Street the other day. They told me about how they identify talent early on, and then they create opportunities to help that person succeed. It’s part of the culture on Wall Street: it’s just what you do. I don’t think this is what traditionally happens for women … One of the reasons is that it’s risky to be a sponsor, and historically it’s riskier to sponsor woman. They are more visible, and if something goes wrong everyone notices. Why don’t women [sponsor other women]? Because it’s not a behaviour that they saw modelled.”

E&Y has instituted sponsorship programmes at its branches all over the globe. Noor Abid, the company’s assurance leader for the Middle East and North Africa, for instance, is leading efforts to overturn customs that get in the way of women’s progress in the workforce by helping establish flexible working hours throughout the region.

Brooke, who was a member of the UN commission on the status of women in 2009 and 2010, says:

“The single biggest employment issue for women–and it doesn’t matter what country you’re living in–is flexibility. It’s so important to not let the traditional majority culture silently push women out of the workplace.”

In the Fortune 500, women currently make up 34 per cent of senior management, but they comprise only 3 per cent of chief executives. At E&Y, the numbers are not any better. The company’s gender equity efforts started with a focus in the US in the mid-1990s. since then, the presence of women in top executive management positions has increased from zero to over 20 per cent. Today, three of out of 16 members of its global executive board are women.

Sponsorship and a conscious effort to change promotion policies will bring about improvements, she says.

“It sounds trite but when a leadership role comes up in most organisations, the person doing the hiring just thinks about who they know, and who’s visible. But it takes taking a breath, and looking at candidates who might be invisible—not just candidates who look like us and sound like us. It’s forcing yourself to build out a diverse slate of candidates. It’s challenging the way you usually do things.”

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The 'Women at the Top' blog is part of a series of online and print publications that focuses on women's achievements in business. With up-to-date news and incisive analysis, the blog will provoke discussion on the role of the world's most prominent businesswomen.

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About our bloggers

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.

Rebecca Knight

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.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

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