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Jennifer Reynolds. (Kathryn_Hollinrake)
Jennifer Reynolds. (Kathryn_Hollinrake)


Sponsorship: The missing link between women and the executive suite Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

Women have been abundantly present in middle management roles in the corporate world for decades, yet that has not translated into growing numbers of women in the executive suite. Even in industries where women outnumber men in entry-level roles, as professionals move from mid to senior roles, men advance disproportionately to women. Why are women stalling out in mid-level management roles? According to a growing body of research, a critical factor in reaching the upper echelons of senior leadership are powerful sponsors who propel careers to the top. This presents a challenge for women aspiring to the C-suite given that they are 50 per cent less likely to have sponsor in their careers than men according to a recent studies in the United States and Britain by the Center for Talent Innovation (“CTI”).

What is it that a sponsor provides that impacts careers so dramatically? A sponsor uses their personal capital to advocate for protegees for promotions, stretch assignments, exposure to senior leadership in their organization and other influential leaders in their network. That guidance and support not only provides critical experience and credentials, it also builds the confidence of the professional and makes them more likely to ask for stretch assignments, promotions and raises. Both men and women who have sponsors have significantly higher rates of satisfaction with their career progression. Sponsorship also has a profound impact on the careers of professional women with children – 85 per cent of women with sponsors continue to work full time and strive for leadership roles relative to 58 per cent of those without sponsors.

The price for sponsorship for both men and women is delivering stellar results, impressive work ethic and commitment to supporting the objectives of the sponsor. Senior leaders who use their personal and professional capital expect their protegees to reflect positively on their reputation and their ability to spot talent. Interestingly, men seem much more aware of the importance of personal connections when it comes to making it to leadership ranks – 83 per cent of men believe “who you know” counts for as much as how well you do your job, whereas 77 per cent of women feel getting ahead is a function of hard work and long hours.

The challenge for women in garnering sponsors in their career is that these relationships tend to develop organically at work based on commonality of background and interests. Much of the relationship building also takes place at social events where women are typically less likely to be present. Some organizations are tackling this issue by striving to facilitate the development of sponsorship relationships through a more structured approach to talent management and asking senior leadership to ensure those they sponsor for promotion and leadership roles includes women as well as men.

Formal sponsorship programs are still in their infancy in the corporate world but organizations are increasingly recognizing that increasing diversity in leadership requires a conscious effort to ensure sponsors don’t gravitate only to those like themselves. Organizations need to ensure professionals in middle management roles are getting similar work experiences and opportunities to expand their skill set. Most importantly, professionals must have similar opportunities to demonstrate their abilities to senior leadership in the organization. Finally, succession planning at all levels needs to include a dialogue around which professionals have sponsorship from senior leadership. If the pool of talent leaders are willing to put their professional capital behind doesn’t reflect the diversity you have in your work force at the junior and mid levels, your organization is not tapping into 100 per cent of the talent pool for leadership and you don’t have the best and the brightest at the top.

Jennifer Reynolds is CEO, Women in Capital Markets

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