You might think of sponsorship as something to do with your favorite sporting team. But sponsoring in the organisational and professional context is an under-utilised complement to mentorship that can significantly help with the career advancement of women.
Why is it that the career progress of some people seems to be smoother than others? Is hard work, dedication, and a unique profile enough to progress the way you had envisioned? The experience of many women is that more is necessary to advance in their careers. In her Master’s thesis, Eveline Braber, Project Officer at Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR), researched career sponsoring in the context of academic careers within Erasmus University – to see if, and how, sponsoring can help reaching gender diversity in academic leadership. Many of her findings are applicable to women working in organisations everywhere.
Erasmus University Rotterdam has set several diversity and inclusion goals within its strategy. One of them is the 25/25 initiative that aims to reach 25 percent women among the full professors at the university. A plan guides and supports female academics in their path towards promotion. This includes financial support and mentoring. While these are valuable and important - and have helped the 25/25 goal be almost met in 2022, the question arises: will this be enough to sustainably create equal career opportunities for all academics?
Sponsoring is associated with mentoring and championing, but it is seen as more action focused. By the act of sponsoring, a sponsor provides career advancing opportunities to a sponsee. Whereas mentoring is a useful starting point of advice and the exploration of career opportunities, a sponsor has power and uses that to advocate for somebody in whom they believe.
The following visual, drawn from Herminia Ibarra’s article in Harvard Business Review, indicates different opportunities and levels in career support those working in an organisation can provide to each other. It indicates compelling actions beyond mentoring.
For sponsoring to have impact, it is imperative that a general career supportive culture is evident within an organisation. To have impact, leaders must show by example in this regard by fostering a culture where career support is integral to the organisation. Within this higher goal, it becomes easier to actively stimulate sponsoring as a tool for career advancement that stimulates diversity. Good examples should be shared, and good practice should be rewarded. If colleagues at all kinds of career levels advocate for each other, provide resources, and share useful information about opportunities that grow careers, mobility and advancement will increase and the organisation will gain more diversity of perspectives. Organisations that create a culture where everyone cares about the growth of their colleagues can stimulate an environment in which all employees contribute to this.
“You don’t know what you know”. This is what one of the study participants stated – and we could also add, “You don’t know what you have”. What this means in practice is that you can support another’s career when you yourself are at any career level – similar to ECWO’s core idea of “you can lead from wherever you are”. However, you might not be aware of the valuable information and the unique power or position that you have. To unlock this, start conversations with colleagues about their ambitions and what they would need to reach those. When you split this up in smaller actions, you can create lists with opportunities for which you can be on the lookout. Your network, your knowledge, your insights, and your reputation are all powerful tools that can be used in sponsoring other women in the advancement of their careers.
A few examples that arose during the research include:
Whether you call it mentoring, sponsoring, coaching or championing, providing career support to underrepresented groups in your business (like women) will have a positive impact on diversity in your organisation and can play an important role in advancing organisational goals. Think about the things you can do to support others, and who would be the talents that you want to help with this. Remember, you can be a sponsor and a sponsee at the same time. Don’t be shy about expressing your own career advancement needs to others as well.
Within organisations, the conversation about how to provide career support, and whom to support, should be stimulated. You can start this in discussions with mentors and mentees, but also with department heads or people in other departments or even in external organisations. Opportunities for yourself or for somebody else might come from unexpected angels. A professional does not have to be in a leadership position to take the role of a sponsor. By opening the discussion, you can make them more aware of their power, and that others are looking up to them.
All these actions can speed up growth – individual and organisational. And remember too, that sponsoring can happen episodically or more spontaneously, at those crucial moments in someone’s career. It can therefore be, at times, more effective than mentoring.
Inspiring quotes from the research
“A goal of sponsoring is to enable people that don’t have visibility, to actually get some visibility with those who actually make decisions.”
“Sponsoring means that you are developing more inclusive leaders and leadership, across the universe. I think over the long run, we're going be able to see the fruition of this. So, we're going have more inclusive and diverse leadership.”
“I sponsor others because I do believe in continuing in the organisation. I do believe that when you see a person with talents and understanding and intelligence, you want to keep them. A way to keep them, is to keep them moving within the organisation, in positions that can increase possibilities and where they can exploit talents that they have.”
“I think potential sponsees should start seeing their own careers as a strategy process, not a linear thing.”
“We should allow external sponsors, because we only will change if external energy comes into the organisation. This way, sponsoring can be more transformative.”
The Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations (ECWO) at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is committed to creating organisations where all women are fully and equitably engaged at all levels. ECWO provides education, research and advocacy that benefits individual women, organisations and society as a whole and helps create communities of women who support and empower each other in creating change. ECWO’s open programmes, in-company programmes, coaching, events, advisory alliances, research and advocacy drive its vision of a world where all women have an equal share of organisational power and influence.