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Sponsorship is an important key to unlocking women’s career potential

Founder of Collaborativity Leadership Advisory and the former chief human resources officer of American Express Canada.

Did you know that …

There are more CEOs named John than female CEOs in total?

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Just 2 per cent of venture-capital investment goes to women?

While we've made significant strides since the suffragettes of the early 1900s, we have ways to go. One way we can move the dial is through the power of sponsorship.

Sponsorship – often confused with but very different from mentorship – is one step beyond advocacy: It's someone being your champion, putting their reputation on the line for your career advancement.

Different from mentorship, the sponsor/"sponsoree" relationship is always between a senior leader (someone with influence over career decisions) and someone more junior. Also, sponsorship is not asked for – it must be earned. Sponsorship often happens behind closed doors, and sometimes we don't realize we have sponsorship until we reflect back on pivotal career moments that would not have been likely based on merit alone.

According to 2016 research commissioned by Women of Influence and American Express Canada, women with sponsors are almost twice as likely to believe that reaching the C-suite is attainable (61 per cent versus 32 per cent over all). Empirically, knowing that someone has your back and is advocating for you behind closed doors increases risk taking and confidence – making you more likely to put your hand up for that stretch assignment or role.

Why, then, do women still seem to deprioritize this very important relationship? According to the same study, only 8 per cent of women acknowledged having a sponsor. Is this because they are too humble to admit they have one? Or is it because they don't think sponsors are important? Both are a problem.

Men are far more likely to have sponsors than women are; they are also more likely to adhere to Richard Branson's advice: "If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you're not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later." So, generally, women are doubly disadvantaged when it comes to attaining senior positions.

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Knowing that the working world is not always a meritocracy, organizations need to be more forthcoming in opening the dialogue around sponsorship and why it is such a critical component of the diversity agenda.

Formal mentorship (matching) programs may work to develop a specific skill or achieve a certain goal. But sponsorship match-making is akin to online dating – in order to take the leap and actually put your own reputation on the line (or in the dating analogy, committing to your match), the relationship should happen naturally, otherwise success is pretty much left up to chance.

Recognizing that sponsorship is so important in closing the gender gap in leadership positions, here are some things to consider both as sponsors and as sponsorees:


  • Let them know: Sponsorship should be part of your job and performance goals as a leader. Let those you sponsor know so that they can feel confident knowing someone is in their corner.
  • Don’t take it personally if your sponsoree leaves your organization – and don’t abandon them! First, they may boomerang back to your organization at some point or become a valued customer. Second, they need you even more as they explore new territory and need to maintain confidence.
  • Participate in #gosponsorher– a movement to help move the dial on women’s advancement. Going public about your sponsorship will give your sponsoree a boost of confidence and also serves as a fun challenge to other leaders.


  • Don’t put all your eggs in your current basket: It is important to have sponsors both within and outside of your organization – and more than one in case you or your sponsor leaves your current company.
  • Sponsors are not all created equally: The wrong sponsor can be worse than no sponsor at all. If your sponsor’s voice is not highly valued, think about whether they are the right person to be advocating for you.
  • Not everyone earns a sponsor: If you do not have a sponsor, it could be because you haven’t earned one – yet. Think about how you could earn sponsorship (e.g. from a leader or mentor) through hard work and strong performance.
  • Help them help you: First, acknowledge and appreciate your sponsors. Keep your sponsors abreast of your career aspirations and “sound bites” they can use so that they are on the lookout for and advocate for the right opportunities for you and present you in the best light.

In honour of International Women's Day 2018, let's move the dial. Male and female leaders alike – who have you sponsored this year?

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