7 tips on how to be a better sponsor of women

We frequently see posts telling us how to find a sponsor, but no tips on how to become a better sponsor of women

Sponsorship is recognized as an important device within any business. It serves to develop and accelerate high performers to more senior functions within a company. The process can be via a formal partnership pairing programme, or an informal affiliation that develops organically over time. How to become or be a better sponsor of women is a question that is rarely answered, or even asked. It’s assumed that everyone knows what’s involved and it’s something that happens seamlessly and invisibly. But when women become sponsors of women do they improve in the same way that men seem to slide effortlessly into that role when they advocate for their protégées?

With such a small number of women in senior jobs, it is incumbent on them to sponsor junior women coming through the ranks. They are the few who can assume this vital function, but it’s unclear how often this happens. Frequently when women leave senior jobs they are replaced by men. We saw this with Indra Nooyi and Marissa Meyers. If they are asked for a network referral they may not always put forward the name of a female candidate.

better sponsor of women

Here are 7 tips to become a better sponsor of women in your organization:

#1 Understand your female talent pipeline

Make it your business to know and understand the employee experience of the women in your organization. Be clear about the way female talent is identified and attracted to your business. Know what happens to them once they are hired. It’s important that you are aware of the specific churn and pain points in your organisation and position yourself ahead of that curve to pick the women up before they leave. A woman’s experience of the workplace can be very different from their male colleagues. Very often the support women need is more diffused and related to non professional factors. Many senior women can be out of touch with what is going on for women coming through the ranks and its important that the senior role models have their fingers on the pulse.

Learn how men and women look for jobs differently and how that impacts the talent pipeline. Download our new eBook. 

#2 Don’t confuse sponsoring and mentoring

Sponsoring and mentoring are often confused. Mentoring is sharing your experience with a mentee. Sponsoring involves pro-actively advocating, advancing and positioning the career advancement of your protégées. This means you will need excellent insights into the transferable skills, strengths and development needs of your protégée.

#3 Actively commit

If you sponsor someone, you need to make that belief in their ability clear to them. They need to take on board their own obligations and how they will be held accountable for specific deliverables. This is not a commitment that should be made idly and without considerable thought. You role will be as the door-opener to career advancement opportunities. They have the responsibility to be accountable. Your reputation is on the line as the person who has leveraged influence to make things happen for them.

#4 Transparent communication

In any relationship communication is key. You will be on hand with insights for navigating the very often unwritten coded messages which women face in the workplace. Be proactive and ask for regular and ongoing input to benchmark your protégée’s progress. Leave little to chance in case they feel too intimidated to ask for help. You can also learn from your protégée. She can keep you updated about what is going on at probably a lower and more operational level. This will help you keep your fingers on the pulse of your business.

#5 Challenge your protégée.

For her to get maximum exposure you will need to challenge your protégée to stretch herself. This inevitably involves some calculated risks for you as the sponsor. Encourage them to accept any stretch assignments or more challenging roles and projects, and support them to acquire the necessary skills to achieve those goals. It is not uncommon to encounter push-back if the protégée is nudged out of her comfort zone.  Sometimes it might be necessary to seek  a coach for her as well.

#6 Set realistic goals

You may want to achieve gender balance in your own career and to support the junior women, but it’s not possible to sponsor them all or feasible to do it single-handedly. First of all, this spreads your time too thinly. But it also means that individual protégées could end up competing against each other and their interests may conflict. It is much better to focus your attention on the top talent and be prepared to account for your choices. You may also want to address some diversity issues within your organisation and give a woman from a minority demographic who may experience additional challenges, that extra support.

#7 Encourage female talent ambassadors

The value of having a sponsor is widely recognized as being central to both career success and the pace at which a protégée advances through an organisation’s “system.” By taking the lead and stepping up as a proactive sponsor, your colleagues can see first hand from your work as a role model, how to be a better sponsor of women.

When organizations are able to showcase not just the effectiveness of a system of sponsorship for female employees, but also offer opportunities for senior leaders to be better sponsors of women, true systemic change can start to occur.

Is your company doing its best to access the female talent pipelines? Use our services to improve your Executive Search and Diversity Recruitment.

Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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