During a major reorganization at Ernst & Young several years back, Michel Lanteigne, a partner in the firm, spotted talent in the form of Fiona Macfarlane, and asked her to lead the firm's tax practice in Western Canada.
He then coached her to be his successor as tax managing partner. After he retired, Ms. Macfarlane went on to secure other notable roles in the company, where she is now the Western Canada managing partner and chief inclusiveness officer.
"She showed leadership skills and a huge commitment to the firm. At that time I said, 'I have to do whatever I can to support Fiona and make sure she can fulfill all of her ambitions,'" recalled Mr. Lanteigne.
It took some time for Ms. Macfarlane to realize she had a sponsor. But in retrospect, she acknowledges the effect of Mr. Lanteigne's support. "Most people who succeed rising up the ladder have had someone behind them sponsoring them," she noted.
In career management circles, sponsorship is the new panacea. It means cultivating a relationship with a more senior supporter who is willing to create opportunities for you and endorse you to colleagues. Unlike mentorship, which emphasizes the coaching of a person while offering feedback, sponsorship relies on the social capital of a superior to influence your career.
Research into the power of sponsorship and the role it plays in a woman's career first appeared in a report by the Harvard Business Review last January and was picked up by the Center for Work-Life Policy in New York. Catalyst, a not-for-profit organization committed to promoting women in business, published a study in August that lauds the power of sponsorship, and Ernst & Young is to release a white paper on the characteristics of an effective sponsor later this month.
Some of the key findings in the Harvard study showed that women are reluctant to embrace the sponsorship approach. Because women remain scarce at the top, sponsorship would mean relying on a male advocate – an uneasy alliance for some.
Men also find this type of relationship uncomfortable; the Harvard study found that 64 per cent avoided sponsoring junior women for fear of speculation about an affair.
Another key finding comes down to perception. The study found that women often underestimate the power of sponsorship, with 77 per cent believing that hard work and long hours, rather than connections, hold the key to their advancement. For many women, the notion of getting ahead by having an insider advocating on their behalf can seem jarring, and the route to finding a sponsor can be elusive.
I have seen sponsorship in action, and I'm sure it can be successful. I still wonder, however, whether sponsorship is just a nice word for a revised old boys club – one that includes girls and minorities.
Yes and no, said Michael Bach, director of diversity, equity and inclusion at KPMG Management Services in Toronto.
"Sponsorship is taking what has been done informally and formalizing it," explained Mr. Bach, one of this year's recipients of the Catalyst Canada Honours for championing women in corporate Canada.
"It's an individual already in a position of power spending their relationship capital to see someone succeed," he explained.
If companies find a way to ensure that men at the top look for candidates who are different from themselves, it can work for women, especially at the board level, said Thea Miller, managing director of Vancouver-based Women on Board. "Almost every director who is currently on a board is there because he or she was sponsored by someone," Ms. Miller said.
To make sponsorship part of the corporate culture, however, it must meet a business imperative.
Because the sponsorship approach is still in its infancy, it's difficult to prove a business case. Anecdotally, both Ms. Macfarlane and Mr. Lanteigne say sponsorship plays an important role in the talent war, by retaining and promoting valuable employees who might otherwise fly under the radar.
Can a company institutionalize what were previously naturally occurring relationships?
KPMG is in the early stages of formalizing sponsorship by appointing advocates for high performers who might aspire to become a partner. Through this process, Mr. Bach hopes to build on existing, informal relationships – the golf buddies or tennis partners. The program plays a part in KPMG's strategy to retain diverse talent and the firm plans to adhere to benchmarks to quantify its success.
In the meantime, Mr. Bach is optimistic about the approach. "It's the difference between someone standing up and blowing their own horn, and a partner who is widely respected standing up and blowing their horn. It comes across very differently."
Leah Eichler is a senior editor at Thomson Reuters who writes about women, their careers and success. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org