Informal sponsorship and mentorship can proliferate inequitable power dynamics in organizations. Organic sponsorship is a big part of how leadership proactively recasts the pipeline in the majority image. Meanwhile, the status quo power dynamic inhibits individuals who are in the minority among leadership from lifting others up behind them.
Here’s one core way in which your organization is perpetuating inequitable power dynamics at senior levels: informal sponsorship and mentorship.
When you connect the dots of power, organic sponsorship is a big part of how leadership proactively, repetitively, and, by default, recasts the pipeline in the majority image. Meanwhile, the status quo power dynamic inhibits individuals who are in the minority among leadership from lifting others up behind them.
We offer a six point case for why leadership inclusion requires formal sponsorship programs that are deliberately disruptive in creating more equitable opportunities.
When it comes to career advancement, mentorship is both necessary and not enough. The common distinction is: a mentor talks with you, a sponsor talks about you.
A mentorship is 1-1. Mentors help you within your journey. They help you to navigate the intersection of your goals and career choices, identify and amplify strengths, and develop in core areas. Mentorship often acts as a trustworthy mirror for personal growth.
A sponsorship is more than 1-1. A sponsor relationship is 1-1+ an audience of power. Sponsors put skin and reputation in the game by leveraging their social capital (influence) in rooms you’ve yet to enter, and advocate for opportunities and advancement for you among their peers. The protégé also has the motivation of stepping up to the challenge because the sponsor’s reputation is on the line, too. Sponsorship often acts as a spotlight that shines on you to lift you up to the next level of career advancement.
As written by Rosalind Chow in Harvard Business Review, “Sponsorship can be understood as a form of intermediated impression management, where sponsors act as brand managers and publicists for their protégés. This work involves the management of others’ views on the sponsored employee. Thus, the relationship at the heart of sponsorship is not between protégés and sponsors, as is often thought, but between sponsors and an audience — the people they mean to sway to the side of their protégés.”
“Regardless of education, motivation, and personal and professional success factors, being sponsored by a white man remains the primary accelerant to the career mobility of Black women.” (Stephanie Bradley Smith in HBR)
As this quote underlines, and Catalyst iterates in Sponsoring Women to Success, “Sponsorship is focused on advancement and predicated on power.”
The dynamic of organic sponsorship is ultimately majority promoting majority, with the same repeated outcome at leadership, save minor and temporary shifts. Even the common phrase of “winning sponsorship” has a blinding and dubious premise.
While data from different surveys inevitably differs on absolutes (for example, the % of people who report they have a sponsor is highly contextual to the criteria), what remains steady across studies is a debilitating power gap between individuals of the majority and non-majority when it comes to both sponsorship and who they are sponsored by.
Here’s what reproduces the current senior management and leadership profile:
1. Mentorship and especially executive sponsorship have a catalytic impact on career advancement for both protégés and sponsors.
2. Access to mentorship and executive sponsorship is highly variable depending on who you are, regardless of performance = inequitable.
3. Mentorship and sponsorship are especially necessary to advance women and people of color.
4. But people tend to mentor and sponsor those just like them - and this means the majority (with the power) mostly sponsors the majority.
5. Not only are there far fewer female and minority senior leaders, but increased personal career risk can hinder their sponsoring.
6. To further the gap, white and male sponsors hold more influence on outcomes of their protégé’s employment than those from the non-majority groups.
If you want to introduce more equity into talent development, you cannot look away from the affinity bias-based pattern of those with high social capital using that power and influence to promote those who look like them into power, too, while also further advancing their own status. Nor can you look away from how the non-majority individuals who break through to leadership are inhibited from doing the same.
Formal mentorship and sponsorship programs are about deliberately disrupting the cycle of inequitable talent development that has strongly influenced your management and leadership to date.
In the next article, we explore how in more detail.