Written by Meena Thuraisingham, Director & Principal, TalentInvest, June 2011 


A number of organisations went into over-drive following the publishing of Hermina Ibarra’s article in the HBR in October 2010 which asserted that women were over-mentored and under-sponsored, citing it as the reason why men are promoted more often than women.

Even though the issues were well covered in her article, it was based on a relatively small sample of 40 people studied over 2 years in a single company.  This did not therefore allow for the criticality of organisational culture to be explored as a part of the sponsorship process. It also did not create a real understanding of how organisations could actually improve their mentoring efforts especially in relation to the capability of line leaders who champion such efforts.

Having said this, in this article we are not suggesting more research or more data for something that has its roots and has produced tangible benefits from as far back as human history goes. We would not be enjoying the genius of Michelangelo today had it not been for his sponsor Lorenzo de’Medici.  We also don’t need to add yet another program in organisations that are already suffering from ‘program fatigue’.

So let’s get to the questions most asked of us by our clients and perhaps put some perspective in the debate about sponsorship brought on not just by Hebbara’s article. Following on from many major reviews (the Lord Davis review in the UK into under-representation of women on FTSE boards, being only one of many) and as well as new SEC, FTSE and ASX rules around disclosure of director nominations, organisations that have not made much progress with minority representation at senior levels will be starting to worry.

Is mentoring dead and sponsorship the new best thing?

There is a definite place for mentoring and in our view an even bigger role for good mentoring. If you consider that mentoring is a proxy for experience (providing talent with access to experiences  that they could not ordinarily gain as quickly themselves), then the wisdom, insight and understanding that comes from a mentoring relationship cannot be replaced. The most successful leaders have mentors (several), some of whom advocate actively for them i.e. have been converted into sponsors. However organisations already suffering from ‘program fatigue’ have rushed to create sponsorship programs alongside mentoring programs that are not working.

The imperative for organisations is to create a culture of personal sponsorship that is not divorced from their mentoring initiatives, but instead is very much part of their mentoring efforts and find ways to provide their mentors with the skills to operate like advocates and sponsors of their protégés.

Should sponsors be picked or emerge?

Sponsors and mentors that actively sponsor their protégés are easy to spot in organisations. These are people that ‘get’ talent i.e. they understand that there are people that have the potential that others don’t, but still need to be provided the right conditions in which to thrive and grow. They understand from their own experiences, how someone’s potential is best unleashed, they understand that exposure and visibility are also a critical part of the ‘testing’ of that potential. We don’t believe for example that someone can be a good sponsor unless they can point to people that have advocated and sponsored them during their career in material ways and deeply understand the process of sponsorship. Most importantly they are extremely skilled in organisational influence. They champion causes and programs within their organisations  – they inspire trust in others, others respect their opinions and will trust their judgment implicitly. Above all they have huge amounts of courage and are willing to place and take bets on others often on the strength of a hunch. Hence if a company goes for the ‘picking the sponsor’ approach it will need to be clear about what makes a good sponsor and what is involved in the process of sponsorship.

Have we lost sight of cause and effect?

Isn’t someone who has been successfully sponsored simply someone who has (themselves) learnt to use their networking skills impactfully? They have connected with people who have organisational influence and have benefited from that influence to promote or progress their impact in the organisation. Yes very much so and as such it is important to consider the real causes for why women and other minorities don’t progress as rapidly.  They lack the access to power and influence in an organisation. But on the principle that it is better to ‘teach a man to fish than give him fish’, the focus should be on how we help women and minorities identify and leverage the relationships around them to develop their own impact and influence proactively, which includes learning to ask! This goes well beyond running networking or affinity groups for minorities, which program driven companies have tried but have found not to have yielded the hoped for outcomes.

Does a sponsorship program run foul of efforts to make women more self reliant?

Yes it potentially does because it can inadvertently move the responsibility for career advancement to someone else. Creating a culture of sponsorship through investing in line leader attitudes and skills solves only half the problem. Minorities need to be given development in what is essentially a life skill and one that will have lasting career impact. This approach delivers more sustainable outcomes than contriving a program that is focused only on progressing the protégé to the next organisational level. Providing talented women or minorities with the skills required to powerfully create, deepen and extend their relationship networks is critical to long term success of the protégé and to healthier talent pipelines for the organisation over time.

How do you pick sponsors?

Using their own influence and connections inside and outside the company, sponsors take active and personal responsibility to showcase their protégés.  This will only come from someone who themselves have been sponsored along the way, understand how leaders will learn and grow, have huge personal and professional credibility inside and outside the organisation and whose judgment is trusted implicitly.  They are also often a ‘go to person’ on major organisational change i.e. they know how the organisation works. Organisations that ask for mentors to volunteer for mentoring programs should think again and consider how they might identify using a ‘heat map’ methodology to determine who in the organisation are best able to sponsor and advocate for the most talented people in the organisation.

Can sponsorship programs fall into the trap of perpetuating the current culture?

Some reflective voices have raised the potential for sponsorship programs perpetuating the worst of a current culture. That is to say that those that end up getting sponsored are those that echo the views of their sponsors, toe the line and generally reflect the current cultural biases of the organisation. To avoid this trap, organisations need to take a long hard look at their talent identification processes. As part of this we would recommend a formal process be undertaken to develop a ‘fit for future’ talent lens through which not only are talent identified but all sponsorship and mentoring efforts are re-aligned.

How to assess if sponsorship is really working?

Organisations who have sponsorship programs in place will tell you that not all are producing the results that were intended. The often quoted examples like IBM where sponsors are held accountable for the advancement of their protégés may feel a bit too much like ‘carrot and stick’. The question organisations have to ask is whether sponsorship of young emerging ‘out of the box’ talent is actually supported culturally and if the messages its leaders send about the culture are aligned. A culture that operates with an unconscious bias (at a collective level) towards tenure and experience is unlikely to encourage would-be sponsors to take a punt on someone who is untested. A culture where its leaders are driven more by individual achievement/purpose is less likely to grow leaders who care about collective achievement/purpose and their responsibilities for developing others.

Some concluding thoughts

We advocate that before organisations create sponsorship programs, they should take another look at how talented people are mentored and exposed in their organisations, as this will point to how it can better build a culture of sponsorship. The challenge is ultimately about the culture and if its leaders care enough about pulling through the next generation of talent.

To find out more about these ideas contact meena@talentinvest.com.au

Written by Meena Thuraisingham
Director and Principal, Talent Invest

Meena Thuraisingham is a consultant, author, executive coach and thought leader in the area of People and Culture. An organisational psychologist by training, she founded TalentInvest, a niche consulting practice, advising global clients in the UK, Asia and Australia in Capability and Culture. Meena is also a regular speaker internationally on leadership effectiveness and culture change.

Her published books are The Secret Life of Decisions, Careers Unplugged and Derailed!. Get Your Copy Today