When Sean Middleton, a senior executive at Cognizant, recently advocated for Irene Sandler, a Vice-President and member of his team, he never thought of it as sponsorship. He believed he was doing what all good leaders do. As Sean explains, “I have regular conversations with everyone, asking questions like, ‘What are you doing now? Where do you need help? What do you plan to do next? What roles could we put you in that would help you grow?’” From his perspective, it’s a no-brainer to look for ways to support, challenge and develop every member of his team.
That’s why, when Irene raised her hand saying, “I want to get promoted,” it wasn’t a surprise. As she points out, “Because we’d been regularly communicating, it was a natural output of my work. It wasn’t daunting to make that request.” While ultimately it was Irene and her work that firmly established the case for promotion, because of Sean’s active career sponsorship, it was an easier case to make. “I’m ambitious myself,” Sean says, “so I knew it was on her mind. I recognized it was something she wanted and deserved.” In the end, the two worked together on building awareness and showcasing Irene’s accomplishments while demonstrating the value of her contributions.
Most Women Don’t Have Sponsors
For women, it often takes more than a stand-out performance to nab the high-visibility projects, plum assignments and big promotions – it also takes a proactive sponsor. Sponsors can provide crucial coaching and advocacy for women when career decisions are being made. This is something women can’t always do for themselves, as they are sometimes penalized for obvious self-promoting behavior.
While many think the most important source of career advice, development, mentoring and sponsorship for women is their direct manager, unfortunately only one in four women has had a high-quality conversation with their manager about skill development, and a full 84% don’t have an identified sponsor. To fill the gap, many women instead focus on active networking across a wide array of people inside and outside of the organization. But because these networks tend to be dominated by peers, family and friends – and not sponsors, especially ones with influence – the reality is that women often don’t have a strong presence in places where promotional decisions are being made.
Why is it so difficult to find a sponsor? There can be a certain amount of “kismet” in finding one – a function of chemistry and trust. Indeed, these relationships often develop by working together, much like Sean and Irene. But sometimes, it’s a matter of asking. A bold female leader in our UK office asked me for “18 minutes of mentoring” once a month. Those monthly 18 minutes have now expanded, and our relationship has moved from mentoring to active sponsorship.
But we as organizational leaders can’t wait for kismet to intervene or for women to “ask” for sponsorship.
If we truly want to impact the gender composition of our workforce, we as leaders have a responsibility to drive that process forward. Great leaders add value to their organization by becoming known as someone who encourages and supports women. They:
- Look for high performers: They are attuned to the talent pipeline, actively looking several levels down into the organization for high-performing female talent to support their success.
- Engage in high-quality conversations: They hold ongoing conversations with female employees to understand and explore career goals, personal preferences and potential fit with upcoming opportunities.
- Actively advocate: They champion women for potential opportunities that will expand skill sets, leverage untapped talents or expose broader thinking.
- Promote visibility and connections: They introduce women to their networks as a way to help them create relationships for opportunities down the line, and they build awareness, showcase accomplishments and demonstrate the value of women’s contributions.
Benefits Flow Both Ways
The good news is that genuine sponsorship is a two-way street. It’s a professional relationship designed to help propel women into senior leadership positions through coaching and advocacy while extending the reach and impact of the sponsoring senior leaders. Sponsorship offers a unique opportunity for senior leaders to broaden their perspectives and expand their own networks.
Furthermore, according to a landmark study by nonprofit organization Catalyst, leaders involved in a sponsoring relationship tend to be more satisfied with their jobs, committed to their organization and more likely to stay with the company longer. The spillover effect of sponsoring can be significant in building a high-performing, diverse pipeline.
Setting the Tone
At Cognizant, we believe it’s important that we create an environment where sponsorship thrives. Consequently, we’ve made the leadership decision to intentionally sponsor and facilitate the movement of women throughout our leadership pipeline.
The question is – what will you do?
Real change starts at the individual level, and now is the time to get started. In what ways will you as a leader own the change? Who will you hire, develop, mentor and sponsor? One proactive step by each of us can lead to major shifts in how we promote and advance females in our leadership pipeline.
Read more about Irene Sandler’s career story on our Women Empowered website.