Leaders have a responsibility to represent and advocate for high-potential employees. With so many employees worldwide now working remotely, it is easier for high-potential employees — especially women and minorities — to become lost in the shuffle. When companies operate outside of the traditional office model, access to senior leaders is more limited due to geographical and technological boundaries. It is incumbent upon leaders to identify a diverse body of employees who need exposure to ensure that they are given the opportunity to move up the career ladder.
This type of advocacy, known as sponsorship, differs from mentorship and coaching in that the sponsorship relationship is founded upon a deeper sense of trust in each other built over years, and a real confidence in the employee being sponsored. Mentors can be, and often are, assigned to new employees when they walk through the door. This is not the case with sponsors, who are expected to share their reputational and social capital with their charges. Consequently, leaders carefully select only those colleagues and employees they know, trust, and have worked with for these coveted sponsor relationships. This is because sponsors actively support and promote the advancement of those they take under their wings. As Heather Foust-Cummings, senior vice president of the nonprofit Catalyst puts it, “A mentor will talk with you, but a sponsor will talk about you.”
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The challenge many leaders face is determining how to identify high-potential individuals within the organization who they believe in and would be willing to share part of their reputation and personal brand with in order to help such protégés advance to the next level.
Identifying Who Is Ready for Development
We believe that the best way to home in on the right employees to sponsor is to look for people who have demonstrated and expressed ability, aspiration, and engagement as mapped in our Employee Sponsorship Framework below. Leaders can easily apply this tool when evaluating their employees. Ask yourself: Has this employee demonstrated the ability to succeed at the next level? And have they expressed to you that they have the ability to succeed at the next level?
An employee might align with one or more dimensions, and the more of those qualities they demonstrate, the more likely they are to be ready to take on a position at the next level of responsibility. Readiness is the key here, because we know that advancement is not based solely on performance but also on networking and reputation.1 Thus, if leaders identify someone demonstrating the ability, aspiration, and engagement necessary to succeed, then they might be ready for sponsorship.
Although the Employee Sponsorship Framework outlines how to identify employees ready for sponsorship, it does not ensure a representative process. Leaders interested in establishing a representative process within their organizations should consider taking some specific steps.
Ensuring a Representative Sponsorship Process
Experience tells us that implicit biases have limited women’s and minorities’ opportunities to access mentors. We see implicit bias playing a role when white male leaders select protégés who look like them. Other factors we’ve seen are less overt but still play a role: senior male managers worrying about the optics of sponsoring junior female employees, and some minority employees being unfamiliar with the need for sponsorship and thus not seeking it out. There are also systemic, societal issues at play: The No. 1 reason women don’t seek mentors is a lack of time.2
Thus, simply expecting sponsorships to be representative of the employee population is wishful thinking at best. Instead, leaders need to take a proactive role in ensuring that they afford key sponsorship opportunities to qualified and willing employees. There are several factors that leaders should take into consideration in order to select the most deserving employees.
First, although women and minorities are just as likely to demonstrate ability, aspiration, and engagement, research suggests they are less likely to actually express — that is, self-promote — these qualities than white men. It’s purported that white men are given opportunity based upon their “potential,” but women and minorities are given opportunities based upon observed performance. This discrepancy could boil down to women and minorities failing to adequately self-promote, but good leaders will establish relationships — particularly with those least likely to self-promote — so that employees feel comfortable expressing their aspirations. Forging these relationships can be as easy as “taking a lap.” Walk around the workplace and meet with your employees in their own offices to help tear down the psychological barrier that often bars entry into the boss’s office. Remember that doing this just once is not enough; make this a habit, and you likely will see people opening up to you and, consequently, start expressing their ability, aspiration, and engagement.
Second, don’t just focus on those employees approaching C-suite levels in the organization. It’s important to build relationships further down the pipeline, because it is on the path to those more senior levels where things start breaking down in terms of representation. We already know there are fewer women of color in senior leadership roles, which results in fewer women of color receiving the sponsorship opportunities needed to advance in their organizations. Case in point: Of the male and female leaders who stated that they were allies to women of color at work (61% and 65%, respectively), only 8% of male leaders and 12% of female leaders actually sponsored a woman of color.3 Savvy leaders can use sponsorship to thaw the frozen middle layer of organizations where middle managers wait in a queue for their opportunity to advance.
Alternatively, and possibly in addition to the advice above, we recommend that potential sponsors provide opportunities for sponsorship relationships to grow organically. Try to reduce the power distance between you and those you may sponsor so that they feel comfortable expressing their abilities, aspirations, and engagement with you. Consider taking on several mentees — something that requires less commitment than sponsorship and that will, hopefully, provide you with the opportunity to truly get to know those employees. The worst outcome is the employee walking away with valuable advice; the best outcome is that you develop a relationship with someone you respect and trust enough to personally invest in their career success.
The shining stars in your organization need you to help them reach their full potential. Your organization needs you to help promote and retain that same talent. Identifying high-potential employees — especially those who don’t shout their qualifications from the rooftops — may seem daunting, but it can be simplified by focusing on your employees’ demonstrated and expressed ability, aspiration, and engagement.
1. S. Todd, K.J. Harris, R.B. Harris, et al., “Career Success Implications of Political Skill,” The Journal of Social Psychology 149, no. 3 (July 2009): 279-304; and G.R. Ferris, B.P. Ellen III, C.P. McAllister, et al., “Reorganizing Organizational Politics Research: A Review of the Literature and Identification of Future Research Directions,” Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior 6 (January 2019): 299-323.
2. D. Wilkie, “Women Know Mentors Are Key, so Why Don’t They Have Them?” Society for Human Resource Management, April 14, 2014, https://blog.shrm.org.
3. “Women in the Workplace 2020,” PDF file (McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org, October 2020), https://womenintheworkplace.com.