Sponsorship Matters

Sponsorship Matters: Creating Effective Programs to Advance Women

May 7, 2013 Event Summary

View photos

On May 7, 2013, the Center for Women and Business at Bentley University hosted its second Best Practices Forum, Sponsorship Matters: Creating Effective Programs to Advance Women.  More than 100 executives, academics, and thought leaders gathered to explore the nature and importance of sponsorship programs in the retention and advancement of women throughout the business world.  A stellar group of presenters and an equally impressive assembly of participants made for a memorable experience, where all participants were engaged and left the day with new insights and strategies for implementation.  Rebecca Shambaugh, president of SHAMBAUGH, author, and the Center’s executive partner, delivered the keynote address and led the day’s presentations, exercises, and discussions.

According to the United States Department of Labor, women comprise almost half the American workforce (47%).  Less than 15% of those women in Fortune 500 companes have reached organizational leadership positions. Even fewer – 3.6% – have secured the CEO’s seat.

Why is it so difficult for women to reach the corporate peak? Although various reasons have been suggested, everyone seems to agree there are no easy answers to what has become a vexing problem for American business. The leadership potential of half the labor force simply cannot be ignored.  Nor can the costs incurred by companies that fail to retain the talented women they recruit.

While the root causes of the problem may be difficult to pinpoint, experts who gathered at the Sponsorship Forum believe that the practice of sponsorship itself can vault qualified women into senior leadership positions.

“The thought of not sponsoring and embracing half the workforce just doesn’t make sense,” said Stephen DelVecchio (Bentley ’81), a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Center’s Founding Corporate Partner. In addition, noted Betsy Myers, founding director of the Center for Women and Business, “Seventy percent of new entrants into the workforce last year were women and people of color. The world has changed.”

What Is Sponsorship?

People often confuse mentorship with sponsorship. While there may be some overlap, the two concepts are quite different. Mentors play important roles in the talent development cycle, serving as role models who coach and encourage.  Sponsors do all this – and more.  As Myers describes it, sponsorship is “mentorship on steroids.”

In addition to serving as a role model and coach, a sponsor will advocate on behalf of his or her protégé, using his or her influence with senior executives to secure critical promotions or opportunities.

According to Rebecca Shambaugh, sponsors open doors to advancement by:

  • Knowing a protégé’s capabilities
  • Positively influencing others’ opinions about the protégé
  • “Going to bat” for, protecting and taking a chance on a protégé
  • Positioning a protégé for more visible roles and stretch assignments.

Sounds easy, right? Just find an executive sponsor and climb the corporate ladder. Not so fast. Shambaugh pointed out several hurdles that women – and other minority groups – have to overcome along the way.

First, most senior executives are white males, and given the tendency for most people to closely identify with those who remind them of themselves, there’s an unconscious bias that holds some corporate leaders back from sponsoring women. Also, male leaders often are reluctant or uneasy giving honest feedback to women and minorities.

Some stumbling blocks are gender-based, according to Shambaugh: “If you went to our Best Practices Forum on Gender Intelligence several months ago, you would have learned that men's and women's brains are designed differently. It's just a fact, and you can't argue with the research.”

Shambaugh pointed out that men aren’t shy about strategic networking and asking for sponsorship, but women spend more time with their heads down delivering results and less on developing the relationships that matter.  Women who are also more likely to struggle with issues such as driving for perfection and managing work-life integration, don't participate in the same informal networks as male leaders.

During the Forum, attendees participated in several polling exercises, where they answered questions about their own sponsorship experiences and the level of sponsorship programming currently available at their companies.  The results of these exercises are clear.  Men are using sponsorship to their advantage more than women, and there is increasing interest in this topic at many companies.

Effective and Sustainable Sponsorship Programs

There was consensus among the presenters at the Forum that CEO commitment is crucial for any sponsorship program – whether formal or informal – to succeed.

“Commitment from the top is absolutely essential,” said Connie Schan, vice president of global diversity and inclusion at American Express, who shared highlights from the company's Pathways to Sponsorship program which resulted in over 50% of participants being promoted or making a strategic lateral move following the program.

When the CEO makes the development of female leaders a priority, things start to happen. For example, a decade ago, only 13% of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ senior leaders were women. Now that number is 18% and  five women serve on the firm’s 15-person leadership team. “Ten years ago, there weren't enough women in senior leadership roles to advocate for women,” said PwC’s DelVecchio. “So we had to break the mold, and make sure that men knew how important it was for them to advocate for and to sponsor women.”

In some cases, the results of sponsorship programs are startling. In the past three years at Kimberly-Clark, which has both formal and informal sponsorship practices, the number of women in director-plus positions has risen from 10% to 26%. In that same time frame, the company’s share price has increased substantially, which Kimberly-Clark Global Diversity Officer, Sue Dodsworth, attributes to the improved sponsorship efforts. “We’ve shaken up the leadership teams, which has led to better conversations and more innovation.”

Best Practices for Sponsors and Protégés

During her presentation, Mary Alice Callahan, senior consultant and professional facilitator at SHAMBAUGH, also noted how important it is for sponsors and protégés to understand what is expected of each of them in a sponsor relationship.

Protégés should define what success looks like for themselves:

  • Know their strengths, passions and personal goals
  • Be willing to stretch beyond their comfort zone
  • Seek honest feedback about their strengths and weaknesses
  • Think strategically about their professional network
  • Be willing to ask for sponsorship

Sponsors must be prepared to:

  • Reach outside their own comfort zones to identify high-potential performers who might not look or act like them
  • Be willing to take risks for their protégés and openly tout their accomplishments with key leaders
  • Offer introductions and access to other executives
  • Recommend stretch assignments and pave the way for new job opportunities
  • Offer honest feedback about presentation skills and appearance, among other elements of “executive presence”
  • Help their protégés make connections outside the organization

Courage and clarity are two other prerequisites for a successful sponsor-protégé relationship, according to Microsoft senior director Micheline Germanos, who took part in the morning panel discussion, “Learning, Advice and Best Practices for the Sponsor and Protégé Relationship.”

“The protégé needs to know what she wants and needs to clearly communicate what she’s looking for from the relationship,” Germanos said. “The sponsor must realize that sponsorship is a deeper commitment than mentorship.  The sponsor must be willing to go to bat for the protégé.” 

Brenda Dennis, Senior Director of Strategy & Market Development at Cisco Systems, who also participated in the morning panel, spoke of how companies can facilitate the development of a healthy protégé and sponsor relationship. Cisco has a leadership program that requires protégés to approach an executive and interview him/her about career development.  Most women used the interview as a vehicle to develop longer-term relationships. In addition, Cisco offers an e-mentoring system that provides an online matching forum for junior level employees. Access and transparency is the key to success at all levels of the organizations.

The Impact of Sponsorship

“This is the first time in my 30 years of leadership development that I really see an opportunity for us to move beyond conversation to action,” said Shambaugh. “Organizations, men and women coming together – instead of working in silos – must address this issue. This will be the secret sauce that will make this effort successful.”

Our Partners

The CWB would like to thank our Executive Partner, Rebecca Shambaugh, with whom we collaborated to deliver this event. You can learn more about her leadership work at SHAMBAUGH or find her recent books online.

We also thank our partners at Swarmworks who assist us in tapping the wisdom and insights of all participants.

Learn more about our Best Practice Forums and how you can partner with the CWB for future events.

Thank you to our Founding Corporate Partner: