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by Aman Singh Das | January 25, 2011


Take a look at the graph below: Isn't it striking how women just seem to fall off as career levels progress? "This [decline] is why women need sponsors early on their careers. Every job must begin with a sponsor because having an active advocate completely changes your career," said Kerrie Peraino, Vice President for Human Resources and Chief Diversity Officer with American Express.

The Role of Sponsorship in Career Advancement for Women

I spoke to Peraino before she headed off to welcome attendees to a panel titled "The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling." The panel—moderated by Harvard Business Review (HBR) Senior Editor Melinda Merino—included senior executives from Deloitte, Pfizer and Intel.

The issue on hand: A study conducted by the Center for Work-Life Policy in collaboration with American Express on what is restricting women from making gains in top leadership positions.

The Last Glass Ceiling

It's been clear for a long time that there is a glass ceiling in the upper echelons of corporate America. For women who did make it to the corner office--like Avon's Andrea Jung, DuPont's Ellen Kullman and Xerox's Ursula Burns--the path has meant many sacrifices, aggressive personal marketing, and for Burns, an active sponsor in Anne Mulcahy.

And that is what the Center for Work-Life Policy's latest study aims to highlight: Not a male conspiracy but rather, "a surprising absence of male (and female) advocacy" for women. The report goes on to state:

"Women who are qualified to lead simply don’t have the powerful backing necessary to inspire, propel and protect them through the perilous straits of upper management. Women lack, in a word, sponsorship."

What is Sponsorship?

In her opening address—after an insightful keynote by Amex CEO Ken Chenault on his career path—Peraino discussed the key observation that led to this study. "Most women that we surveyed at American Express had one sponsor while men had three to four," she noted, adding that this was a big question of career advancement that required further investigation.

The research, which featured two surveys, 11 focus groups and several one-on-one interviews, resulted in over 4,000 respondents nationwide—all of whom were employed full time at companies with 5,000 or more employees. The results, as Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the founding president of the Center, pointed out, link directly to the 34 percent of female executives who form the "marzipan layer." ("The talent-rich tranche just below the executive suite.") And remain there.

She explained: "This barrier is no longer about experience or performance. It is all about relationship-building and connections. Who you know, i.e., sponsors."

That brings us to the need for a definition for the term sponsor. According to Hewlett, "a sponsor is "someone who advocates for my next promotion and speaks of your strengths and makes the case for your advancement in your absence." Peraino went a step further. For her, "a sponsor takes calculated risks for you."

An immediate example to illustrate their point is HP's former CEO Mark Hurd who was ever-so-expertly sponsored by Oracle's Larry Ellison last year.

Sponsorship vs. Mentorship

One mistake many professionals often make is of using mentor and sponsor interchangeably. That’s a big mistake, according to the study. "Where a mentor might help you envision your next position, a sponsor will lever open that position for you. A sponsor doesn’t just believe in you; a sponsor believes in you more than you believe in yourself."

Before the panel began, I asked HBR's Merino to evaluate mentors vs. sponsors. She advised, "You should never get over-involved in mentoring programs with no outcome of promotion. Instead look for a senior-level person who would advocate for you." Or in other words, use a mentorship to pave the way to a sponsorship.

Gender Disparity Made Worse By a Recession

But is this really a man vs. woman thing?

Yes, according to these ladies. "There is a reason that women have a harder time finding sponsors," said Hewlett, leading us through five major pitfalls that women face in the workplace. And fair enough, several felt too familiar for comfort (E.g.: Men (2:1) look at work relationships that help them make connects to get ahead. Women look for friendship!?).

Besides, the study reports, the ongoing recession has made finding sponsors much harder, especially for women. Fifty-two percent of female managers compared to 35 percent of male managers responded that it's become harder to find a sponsor due to the recession.

One possible reason for this struggle, the data indicates, could be the pressures of a recession on senior management, resulting in no time for professional support and career advancement of their subordinates. Another reason: potential sponsors fear for their own jobs. For Merino, however, there is a "sense of fatigue among women who spend a lot of time in mentoring and leadership advising but don’t see a lot of advancement."

Why Sponsorship, Why Now?

With few jobs in the market, career opportunities threadbare, and recent news that women now make up more than half of our active workforce, the question on my mind was the ill-timing of this advocacy for sponsorship. Clearly, the panel had foreseen such qualms.

From the get-go, Peraino set the tone for the panel. "If young women realize the importance of sponsorship early in their careers, by the time they reach that marzipan layer, there is no glass ceiling to contend with," she said in her opening note. With the knowledge that sponsorship is a crucial necessity for career advancement, graduates can begin this relationship-building early on, easing their overall career growth, she added.

Chief Diversity Officers from Pfizer, Intel & Deloitte Take the Stage

For Pfizer's Chief Diversity Officer Edward Gadsden, the issue isn't the timing but the right terminology. He explained:

"It has been clear for a long time that when people were asking for coaches and mentors; they were really looking for sponsors. This term—sponsor—will help make it a visible discussion, compelling us to look at our people programs and align our definitions accordingly. For us, this is a huge opportunity. "

(Interestingly, Gadsden—who has worked with giants like AMD, Coca-Cola and Texaco—was the only executive at the conference, besides being one of very few men present, to acknowledge that for him corporate social responsibility encompassed diversity, sustainability and philanthropy. Readers who read my recent rant on why executives don’t understand CSR will surely commiserate.)

Intel's Chief Diversity Officer and Global Director of Education and External Relations Rosalind Hudnell added a very different perspective by observing that "relationships could actually be mapped out for people who were moving up." Not only that, she added, women tended to prefer male sponsors while men preferred to have multiple sponsors. "This acute finding is driving our initiatives at Intel," she said.

And for Deloitte Consulting's National Managing Director for HR, Barbara Adachi, this is the final "missing link" for women advancement: "We surveyed 800 partners, managing directors and senior leaders, all of whom had very similar definition and findings." So, for Deloitte, this meant embedding current employee development and training programs with sponsorship elements rather than starting new programs.

In fact, Adachi went a step further. Referring to an internal initiative, she said, "We embedded sponsorship in our Women's Leadership Program, for 21 women from the so-called marzipan layer. At the end of 18 months, 18 of them had been promoted."

Final Words of Career Advice

In the end, I asked Adachi and Gadsden to sum up the criticality of The Sponsor Effect in one sentence. "Look for sponsors internally and mentors externally. And don’t be afraid to ask for help," advised Adachi while Gadsden took a longer-term view: "This study opens up many avenues of research for us organizationally. You want to be comfortable with your sponsor (at the end of the day) and for that diversity makes a big difference. For sponsorship to work and be embedded across companies from Day 1, the entire employee training and development spectrum must be rethought."

Related Coverage from The Sponsor Effect:

5 Pitfalls That Keep Women from Corporate Leadership

4 Tips for Career Advancement, According to Amex CEO Ken Chenault

Why Don't Executives Understand CSR?


Filed Under: CSR