Are You Ready for Sponsorship?

Sponsorship…it’s all the rage. It’s the flavor of the month, the buzzword on everyone’s lips, and it’s seeping into every conversation in corporate America with varying points of view.  As we march into 2012, we introduce you to three remarkably knowledgeable business authorities talking about the good, the bad and the ugly of “Sponsorship.” Meet Sylvia Ann Hewlett, John Beeson, and Nancy Di Dia.

First: Three simple questions:

  • Can you effectively articulate what you “bring to the table”?
  • Do you have a known personal brand and effective leadership style that says “I belong in the corner office”?
  • Do you have visibility in the right corridors of the corporation?

In essence: Are you ready to be sponsored?

On March 7th we are conducting our second Executive Studio (our February session is already sold out) for leaders who have exceptional talent, but need to polish their leadership presence. Registration is only open for 5 leaders at each session.  You’ll have the opportunity to “be produced” and feel the difference in your confidence, clarity, and delivery. Contact Katherine Leask, our conference director, at to register or find out more.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett

World-renowned economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett is the founding president of the Center for Talent Innovation (formerly Center for Work-Life Policy), a Manhattan-based think tank where she chairs the “Task Force for Talent Innovation,” with 67 global companies committed to global talent innovation. She also directs the Gender and Policy Program at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University and is the author of ten Harvard Business Review articles and eleven critically acclaimed nonfiction books.

When discussing “sponsorship” with us, Sylvia came out of the gate swinging on the gender issue.  “Sponsorship has always happened—this is not a new idea. It used to be the old boys’ club. What we’re trying to do is make it more transparent and accessible, especially to women and minorities. Decisions are always made by people around a table (where you’re not) discussing the short list of final candidates for a desired slot. Someone needs to speak up for you around the table.”

According to Sylvia, women are 46 percent less likely to have a sponsor than men.  They have three times more mentors.  But the person missing from their life is a sponsor.  “A lot of women get stuck in what I call the marzipan layer which is right below the senior executive level. That’s the notch point where women and minorities are stalling out now.”

“Sponsorship is very reciprocal, so the sponsee has a lot of responsibility. They have to pony up performance and be loyal.  A sponsee must have a stand-out personal brand.  You have to bring something special to the table, something value-added.”

Sylvia shared her “Sponsor-Protégé Checklist” from one of her Harvard Business Review articles about the responsibilities of each:

Sponsors will:

  • Advocate for your next promotion
  • Call in favors for you
  • Expand your perception of what you can do
  • Make connections to senior leaders
  • Advise you on executive presence

In turn, a sponsor’s protégé must:

  • Be trusted
  • Contribute 110%
  • Cover your back
  • Promote your legacy
  • Allow you to help shape the next generation of leaders

John Beeson

John Beeson is Principal of Beeson Consulting, a management consulting firm specializing in succession planning, executive assessment, and coaching. He is author of The Unwritten Rules: The Six Skills you Need to Get Promoted to the Executive Level and writes a blog series in the Harvard Business Review. Previously, John worked at Frito-Lay, Hallmark and Harbridge House, Inc.

John is equally outspoken. He believes that sponsorship is an executive development technique in vogue today that is poorly understood and with some downsides.  “It’s just an arrow in the quiver—a company shouldn’t overrate the impact of sponsorship by itself.”

John sees an important distinction between a mentor and a sponsor.  “A mentor is a person who does some deep personal coaching, helps you understand the work of the senior executives, how the organization operates, and how decisions get made.  The mentor, in essence, opens the kimono to show how decisions get made behind the scenes.

“A sponsor goes beyond. Your sponsor plays an active advocacy role in senior level conversations about filling positions. He or she touts you and your capabilities and recommends you for choice assignments.” Typically, these active sponsor relationships are the result of two things:

  • a manager producing very strong results that help the senior person achieve their objectives
  • a manager demonstrating those skills that breed confidence that they will succeed at the executive level.”

John is convinced that it rarely works when companies try to formalize sponsorship relationships. “It’s usually a special chemistry that works between a sponsor and sponsee—more organic than prescribed.”  He believes that sponsorship is wonderful if it occurs, but that it’s very hard to legislate and turn into corporate programs.  John says there are three steps that have more impact in an organization and, when put into place, allow people to breed confidence at the executive level:

  1. Ensure that potential future leaders get the feedback that really counts—constructive, candid feedback about how they’re viewed by senior level decision makers in terms of the key factors that are used to make decisions at the C-suite level.
  2. Make certain that your future leaders are in a position to demonstrate a needed skill.  For example—a manager who’s great at implementation but there’s a question about his/her strategic skills.  Put them in a job where they can demonstrate their strategic skills.
  3. Take risks on your best people. Move them into a variety of stretch assignments. Future leaders are top performers in their current roles and their bosses have every incentive to keep them where they are—to hoard their talent. To develop strategic ability and the ability to lead innovation and change, give these performers a breadth of assignments so that they broaden their perspective about the industry and develop a deeper understanding of how the organization works.

Nancy Di Dia

Nancy Di Dia, Executive Director & Chief Diversity Officer at Boehringer Ingelheim, has more than 25 years of experience in management and diversity practices in corporate America. Under her leadership, Boehringer Ingelheim achieved the number one position from the Association of Diversity Councils as well as a perfect score on the Corporate Equality Index from the Human Rights Campaign for the best places to work for LGBT for three consecutive years.

Nancy believes that sponsorship really is a way to get through what she calls a clogged pipeline. “Sponsorship is about leveling the playing field. There are hidden treasures or gems in the pipeline that have not been cultivated the way other leaders have been. The old boys’ network shows that people who are part of it tend to get thought about more quickly. I think that as humans it’s a natural inclination for us to associate with people that we know and are most comfortable with. Sponsorship shakes up that comfort—bringing a new person into the fray and exposing them to leaders they may not have been exposed to. It’s a way to uncover talent that doesn’t make it through the pipeline without spotlighting them.”

Nancy revealed that sponsorship happens all the time—whether a company formalizes it (which can be used to address a gap in talent or representation) or not.  “As leaders, we must sponsor people to develop talent. It’s like a reverse funnel in the pipeline. Not all the people from the bottom will come up through the top. You need to continue to develop and perform and also fail—and to learn from that failure to become a better leader.”

Sponsorship is key to Nancy.  Her rules of the road include:

  • Be the voice at the table to get your sponsee a seat at the table
  • Try someone new and take appropriate risks
  • Take an active role in your sponsee’s next move in 12-18 months
  • Work with an individual to help them create their own insights
  • Ask thoughtful questions so that they understand their blindspots
  • Encourage them to see what it will take to get them ready

According to Nancy, “When you have a workforce where people’s passions are harnessed and developed, you ultimately are where you need to be with your business.”

Next Month: Venturing into Terra Nova…

See you then,
The Team at “Producing Your CareerTM

Producing Your CareerTM  is a division of Bedlam Productions Inc.


Categories: Sponsorship


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