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The Superpowers of Sponsorship

Posted by Signature Leaders on Apr 29, 2021 10:00:00 AM
Signature Leaders

4.28.2021 The Superpowers of Sponsorship

“People sometimes ask me, ‘What’s the time commitment to sponsor someone?’ And I reply, ‘What’s the time commitment to be a leader?’” — Carol Seymour, CEO of Signature Leaders 


Who benefits most from a culture of sponsorship?

The answer might seem obvious at first. When championed by senior leaders, protégés — particularly women or those from other underrepresented groups — find their ceilings lifted and their career advancement accelerated.

This truth is rooted, however, in understanding that underrepresented individuals can’t — and shouldn’t be asked to — do all the work of blazing new pathways to a more inclusive organization. They need sponsors who see their potential and advocate on their behalf. They need an organizational culture that values, welcomes, and rewards the fullness of their diverse perspectives and unique gifts.

This is part of what makes sponsorship so much more than mentorship. Sponsorship goes beyond advising a mentee on how to succeed within an organization that may have structural biases against them. Conversely, sponsors invest their own effort and political capital to open new opportunities for their protégés. And organizations committed to sponsorship do the heavy lifting of systemic change.

Sponsorship holds that the work of creating a high-performing culture of diversity and inclusion can and should be the responsibility of all. 

Why? Because the benefits are also shared by all.

Sponsorship Builds Dream Teams for Superstar Leaders

“I have created a network of talent that I would walk through fire for, and they would walk through fire for me. That is what creates capacity and followership.” — Ann Fandozzi, CEO of Ritchie Bros., as quoted in Wisdom Warriors: Journeys Through Leadership and Life

Participating in sponsorship is a critical core competency for any leader ambitious to amplify their impact, advance their career, and grow their company.

This is the point of Carol Seymour’s quote at the top regarding a sponsorship time commitment. For a leader to succeed, sponsorship cannot be thought of as an auxiliary add-on to their primary job description, assigned by mandate or memo. It’s also not a one-and-done task.

Instead, sponsorship is a central responsibility and key capacity of leading with excellence. Leaders who practice it well will be more effective and successful. Those who don’t will fall behind.

This is not simply a hypothesis — there’s proof. Writing on sponsorship in the Harvard Business Review, Sylvia Ann Hewlett reports that “senior-level managers who have a protégé are 53% more likely to report having received a promotion in the previous two years.”

Why is this?

A Stronger Network

As their protégés also advance within the organization — often transferring to other teams and departments — sponsors develop an even more powerful network of leaders across divisions and functions. This network keeps sponsors better attuned to developments across the organization. Then, as they learn of new challenges and opportunities, sponsors are better equipped to meet them with a dream team already assembled.

A Reputation for Developing Talented Leaders

Sponsorship also enhances a sponsor’s reputation. As they become known for developing talented leaders advancing to top positions, sponsors are seen as more valuable to their organizations. They are more valuable; the infrastructure of remarkable leaders they’ve helped build makes them so.

A Richer Understanding From Diverse Perspectives

There are additional challenges to sponsoring protégés from backgrounds and experiences outside the sponsor’s own, but there are also greater rewards. Sponsors with diverse protégés learn to see problems from a wider diversity of perspectives. They deepen their empathy and understanding of people less like themselves, allowing them to lead more effectively from a richer worldview.

Sponsorship Supercharges Organizations

“Sponsorship [is] a valuable tool for actively promoting employees from underrepresented groups into senior positions, stretch assignments, and mission-critical roles.” — Herminia Ibarra and Nana von Bernuth in the Harvard Business Review

These benefits at the sponsor level also translate to the organization as a whole. Companies are more resilient when they develop a robust network of well-connected leaders. They attract and retain better talent when they have a reputation for developing and rewarding that talent. And they are better equipped to succeed in the global economy when their worldview is informed by many diverse perspectives.

On that last point, a culture of leadership diversity and inclusion — nurtured by a core practice of sponsorship — drives innovation, revenue, and talent recruitment.

  • According to a study by Boston Consulting Group, “Companies that reported above-average diversity on their management teams also reported innovation revenue that was 19 percentage points higher than that of companies with below-average leadership diversity.”
  • In a paper published by the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PDF), co-authors Marcus Noland, Tyler Moran, and Barbara Kotschwar found that “For profitable firms, a move from no female leaders to 30 percent representation is associated with a 15 percent increase in the net revenue margin.”
  • Trying to attract top talent? A PwC report (PDF) found that, when considering a potential employer, “61% of women look at the diversity of the employer’s leadership team, [and] 67% at whether it has positive role models similar to them.”

Effective sponsorship is the surest path to this inclusive leadership:

  • It’s how companies assemble top talent, then effectively leverage a powerful multitude of perspectives and experiences. 
  • It is the means through which women and other underrepresented groups progress to key leadership positions, becoming role models for retaining, attracting, and advancing other high performers like them. 
  • It’s how organizations rise to new challenges and opportunities with innovation, adaptation, and acceleration that surpasses anything their more monolithic competitors can achieve.

Effective sponsorship programs give organizations a competitive advantage.

More Sponsorship to Come

We’ll be talking a lot more about sponsorship in the months and years to come. Many of our current and new partners have asked for our help with their sponsorship programs, so we’re expanding the programs and support we provide in this area.

Developing corporate cultures of inclusion, with sponsorship as a core competency for every leader: this may become some of the most important work we do together in the years ahead. We look forward to taking on these challenges with you.

What Is Your Sponsorship Story?

If you have been sponsored in your career or are sponsoring someone, we would love to hear what you’ve struggled with and what has worked well for you. Share your key sponsorship moments or top tips in the comments. We know that developing a culture of inclusive sponsorship isn’t easy. Signature is here to help. Contact us to discuss the possibilities.


Topics: Developing People, Sponsorship, Managing Your Career, Relationships, Intentional Mindset

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