But I was lucky. I found myself working with senior leaders who liked my work and consistently promoted me, advocated for me, and provided me with challenging assignments aimed at helping me grow. Traditionally, they would have been called mentors. But recently, we have realized that those leaders who play the role of advocate, coach, guide and enforcer are far more than mentors — they’re sponsors.
Sponsors get their protégés high-profile work, promotions and a seat at the decision table. They provide their protégés with access to exclusive networks, broadcast their achievements to senior executives, and ensure that they have the stretch assignments they need to succeed.
Sponsorship — not mentorship — is the true route to success in the workplace. And that’s precisely where issues of race and gender arise. See, throughout corporate America, white men run the show. They are in every position of leadership at every level throughout every industry in this nation. With few exceptions, sponsors — the ones who have the power in an organization and the ability to effectively utilize it — will be white men. And when they choose their protégés, they frequently choose people who look a lot like them.
Even more problematic are the assumptions made about the people who don’t look like them, implicit biases that are not explicitly recognized or said out loud. When an assumption is made about who is more competent, who is more dedicated, or who has better leadership skills, that assumption is not often made in favor of the woman or minority professional.
That’s why it’s critical to understand how to sponsor women and minority employees with particular focus on overcoming the biases that these employees face. Here are five actions that sponsors should take to ensure their sponsoring relationships are successful.
Bias often means that instead of being seen through rose-colored glasses, women and minorities are seen through dark-tinted ones instead. This is where you intervene.
Not every employee gets a sponsor. As a sponsor, you will need to identify your high potentials. Identify the protégé who is committed to succeeding, not the one who may have attended the same college as you. It may start organically. You see that someone on your team did exceptional work on a recent project. But don’t stop there. That’s usually how you end up sponsoring protégés who look like you. Continue to do your research. Dive deep into evaluations. Talk to your senior colleagues. Take your potential protégé out for coffee, a long one. Give them a different challenge and see how they handle it. This may sound like a lot of work, but remember, you’re not just identifying a protégé. You’re interrupting bias as well.
Once you’ve found your protégé, you need to ensure that you both have clear expectations of your working relationship. If your goal is to get your protégé to Level X, then define what Level X is, explain what kind of work is needed to get there, then discuss what the success factors are. If she gets promoted, what happens after that? If he doesn’t get promoted, what happens after that? Similarly, you need to be clear on what your protégé needs to do to make this relationship a success. What should their work product look like? What kind of hours should they be putting in? What contacts do they need to follow up with? Sponsorship isn’t low-level support. Sponsorship is high-level strategy.
I get that career competencies aren’t exciting to discuss. But they’re necessary. Do you, as the sponsor, understand what your protégé needs to do to move up in your department or organization? What knowledge and skills they need to get that promotion? Many organizations have their levels clearly laid out. Many do not. If your organization is in the former, find out what those competencies are. Some majority white male employees may be able to advance without meeting all those competencies. Minorities and women do not get that similar benefit of doubt. And what if your company doesn’t have clear competencies? Well, this is as good a time as any to get started on that. Having spoken rather than unspoken rules is better for everyone in an organization, including minorities and women.
Minorities and women are often underestimated as to what they’re able to achieve. They may not receive those stretch assignments that majority men frequently get. That’s when you step in as a sponsor. When high-profile projects come in the door, ensure your protégé is considered for them. Make sure your protégé is using those stretch assignments to grow their knowledge, skills and abilities. Make yourself available for any questions or concerns they may have; remember, this is a stretch assignment — they’re going to feel uncomfortable doing it. Then continue to expand their knowledge. Take them with you to meet high-profile clients and customers. Train them on how to effectively receive and respond to negative feedback. Explain what the visible committee roles at the firm are and encourage them to take those roles on. Success in the workplace is far more than keeping your head down and working hard. You know that. It’s essential that your protégé knows that, too.
Call it power. Call it clout. Call it social capital. You have it. You need to use it. I’m always surprised when leaders — men and women — discount how much power they have in an organization. Whatever leadership level you are, you have developed high levels of trust with those around you. Deploy it in favor of your protégés. For women and minority protégés, here’s what might happen. They might get that stretch assignment. They might do very well with it. But maybe something about it wasn’t perfect, or was just a bit different, and a niggling doubt stays in the head of their project manager. Or maybe they stumbled, and the manager doesn’t think they have the capability to handle something else. Bias often means that instead of being seen through rose-colored glasses, women and minorities are seen through dark-tinted ones instead. This is where you intervene. Speak up on their behalf in meetings. Ensure they get credit for their work. Provide that rose-colored perspective. Advocate, advocate, advocate. You manage to do that and you will become known as the executive who can identify high-potential achievers and ensure they soar. That’s the legacy of a successful sponsor.