Network. Develop relationships. Work with a mentor. It’s all great advice for professionals both new and experienced. But professionals on both sides of the spectrum should be aware of another type of relationship: sponsorship.
A great mentor can help you navigate the day-to-day challenges and long-term goals of your career; a sponsor is someone in a high-level position who is willing to use some of their political capital on you. While a mentor can be someone just a bit more experienced and probably a little older, a sponsor needs to have some decision-making power. When it comes to taking risks, having a sponsor to back you up can help you manage possible fallout, making the risk, well, less risky.
A new Center for Talent Innovation study on the lack of diversity in upper management suggests that many leaders who rise within corporations have been picked up by a sponsor.
Having a sponsor may be just what women and people of color are missing when it comes time for a boss to make a hiring decision. The study’s author says that white sponsors tend to be more comfortable choosing protégés from similar backgrounds to them. With little diversity at the top of the career ladder, this alone is a discouraging finding — but there’s more. Women and sponsors from multicultural backgrounds follow an opposite trend, hesitating to choose protégés similar to themselves because they feel people are watching more closely.
The results reveal that, despite no differences from their white peers in ambition, performance, or credentials, only 8 percent of people of color have sponsors compared with 13 percent of white people. Only 20 people of color hold CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies. You can see a similar leadership gap for women in Fortune 1,000 firms in 2012, when women held only 15.6 percent of total board seats. Maybe exposing the trends and how they’re harming women and minorities will help close the sponsorship (and leadership) gap.
Being a sponsor is not just about finding your favorite person and moving them along. It takes a lot of trust. So, potential protégés out there, you still have to earn your way. Prove yourself and take charge of your own career. Understand the difference between mentors and sponsors so that you will be more prepared to foster these types of relationships if they come your way. And if you reach a place where you could be a sponsor, understand the nuances of choosing (or not choosing) a protégé.
Below: Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has mentored Michelle Kwan and in 2006 named the iconic ice skater as a public diplomacy ambassador.