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?
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.