Sponsor A Woman: Four Steps To Get Started

Published: 22/01/2014

See and treat women as leaders on the rise.

“Women need the sponsorship of men, and men owe it to women, not because men are to blame but because they are in control. Otherwise they limit their firms’ potential for top performance, growth and innovation.” – Ida O. Abbott, J.D.

Author and leadership expert Ida Abbott’s latest book, Sponsoring Women: What Men Need to Know, is the first book written expressly for men about the dynamics of sponsorship. In today’s guest-post, Abbott explains how sponsorship differs from mentorship and offers four critical tips towards jumpstarting this unique, but powerful relationship. —Mike Otterman

Men in executive roles must conscientiously sponsor women in their organizations. Here’s why.

Companies cannot afford to keep losing women. Studies by numerous organizations have shown repeatedly that companies with higher percentages of women in leadership enjoy quantifiably better financial results than their competitors, making the lack of gender diversity very costly to the bottom line. Yet women continue to leave companies before reaching leadership positions because they do not get the same career support that men do. Mentors are considered an important source of career support and women today can readily find mentors. But women do not receive the same career benefits from mentors that men do. Women’s mentors generally offer advice, guidance and emotional support, but they do not actively advocate for women and groom them for success the way mentors do for men. This proactive – and more beneficial – kind of career support is called sponsorship.

One critical distinction between mentors and sponsors is that sponsors need to have enough power in the organization to influence outcomes. This means that most sponsors are senior managers, partners, or people in executive positions. Since men hold the vast majority of those positions in business and the professions, most potential sponsors by definition are men. Most importantly, they are men who are responsible to the organizations they lead for retaining and maximizing talent in order for their companies to remain competitive and thrive in the marketplace. If firm leaders cannot keep the high performing women who constitute half their workforce and make sure they achieve their highest potential, they are failing in their responsibility and jeopardizing their company’s future.

Sponsors set up their protégées for success in many ways. A sponsor might introduce his protégée to powerful internal and business networks, give her high visibility assignments, nominate or appoint her to key positions, ensure her compensation reflects her value, lobby for her promotion, or protect her against detractors. These actions occur all the time in organizations, but most frequently by men for other men. Most of the time male sponsors are not aware that they are favoring men or overlooking women. They may simply be more comfortable with men because they feel more at ease and don’t have to worry about saying or doing something that a woman might misunderstand and find improper. They may assume that women are less ambitious, distracted by family responsibilities, or simply uninterested in moving up into leadership. Or they may worry that sponsoring a woman might be complicated by sexual attraction, misperceptions by co-workers, or jealous wives.

Sponsoring women does carry some risk that is not usually present in same-sex sponsorship. When successful men sponsor younger ambitious women, concerns about sexual entanglements, office gossip, and allegations of impropriety are not unreasonable; these things do occasionally happen. But many men exaggerate the risk rather than try to prevent or manage it.

These misperceptions, concerns and risks can be managed with little effort. Many men effectively sponsor women without any complications, and all men can if they are willing to expand their thinking and adapt their behavior. For the men reading this: Be self-aware, recognize any assumptions or biases that might cause you to bypass women in favor of sponsoring men. Be more purposeful about identifying women with talent, excellence and drive, even if the women’s styles and approaches are unconventional or different than the masculine behaviors all-too-often associated with leadership. Move out of your comfort zone if necessary to engage with women as fellow professionals. See and treat them as leaders on the rise and give them the same opportunities, feedback and support you would give to a male protégé.

If you are in a position to sponsor a woman, here are some steps you can take to get started today:

  1. Identify a few women candidates. These are women with whom you have worked, or whom you have observed at work, over the last year, who have made a strong positive impression on you. Select one to approach.
  2. Consider what you see as this woman’s particular strengths and talents and what you know about her background, work experience, current work situation, career goals and ambitions. Also consider what you see as potential obstacles to sponsoring her.
  3. Talk with the woman. Explain how you want to help her and why. Be clear about what you want to know about her. Ask open-ended questions, listen attentively to her answers, and try to see things through her eyes. She may need clarification about what you have in mind, and she may need to be persuaded that she is ready for the promotion or responsibilities you are suggesting.
  4. In all of these considerations, inquiries and conversations, make no assumptions. Be sure your conclusions are based on hard facts, not on what you assume to be true.

The best way to keep high performing women in the pipeline and moving into leadership is to sponsor them. So make a commitment to sponsor a woman and get started right away.

Posted by Mike Otterman on Jan 15, 2014 12:16 PM EST, MARC (Men Advocating Real Change)