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Leaders as Sponsors: It's About Them, Not You

December 10, 2020 Leadership
mary slaughter
By Mary Slaughter LinkedIn

You may have noticed that leadership development has not been the hottest topic of 2020.

In some ways, our current climate reminds me of a similar pattern we experienced during the global recession that began in 2008. Organizations were consumed by the need to adapt and survive, and as a result, many internal human capital practices took a back seat to other investment priorities. About two years into the recession, organizations began to notice how their assumptions about leadership pipelines were no longer true, and the push to accelerate leadership development kicked in.

The field of physics — specifically Newton’s third law of motion — actually predicts this. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. As we emerged from the recession, the pendulum that swung away from leadership development flew back with the same amount of energy that stopped it in the first place.

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It’s likely this pattern may emerge again toward the end of 2021. By next December, we will have spent nearly two years coping with the pandemic, focused on adapting and surviving. And once again, there will be gaps in leadership pipelines, except this time we may need to redefine what “leading” will mean going forward, as the world of work continues its seismic shift. Health concerns, economic uncertainties, sustainability, social unrest and political differences have all converged, driving the need for new business models as well as a reset for what it takes to lead.

What can be done now as we work through the next 12 months of disruption? If you’re in the business of leadership development, 2021 could be a landmark year for R&D and product development. If you’re an organizational leader, you’ve been presented with a rare set of circumstances that directly challenge the status quo.

The scary reality is one of the optimal times to build leadership capabilities is in the face of ambiguity and intense pressure. Developing leadership skills, much like developing resilience, is a weight-bearing exercise. Dealing with the gravitational force of a global pandemic is a unique opportunity to build the leadership muscle mass needed for a transformation marathon.

For 2021 and hopefully beyond, there’s one aspect of leadership development that’s a sure thing — acting as a sponsor of others. Sponsorship does not necessarily require a formal program or even a monetary investment. What it does require is choosing to prioritize someone else over ourselves for a moment in time.

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While mentors offer substantive advice and allies provide safe havens, sponsors are unique in that they use their power and influence to advocate for the advancement of others. Sponsorship is not free, however. It requires both political and reputational investments on the part of the sponsor. When sponsors advocate for emerging talent, they are committing to the future potential of someone in whom they believe.

Jason Wingard, Dean Emeritus; Professor of Human Capital Management, Columbia  University School of Professional Studies

Jason Wingard, dean emeritus, professor of human capital management at Columbia University School of Professional Studies, and editor of "The Great Skills Gap: Optimizing Talent for the Future of Work":

"Historically, images and ideals of leadership have been associated with stereotypically ‘white male’ qualities. As a result, minorities (women and people of color) are less likely to be perceived and/or selected as ‘leadership material’ compared to white men. Currently, minority CEOs occupy just under 5% of the Fortune 500, and the cascade effect of representative leadership throughout organizations is directly and adversely affected.

Research shows that maintaining a sustainable competitive advantage in today’s global economy requires organizations to act, disruptively and intentionally, to ensure that they have the diversity of thought and experience needed to grow. Today’s client/customer bases are more diverse by gender, race and ethnicity than ever — so, refusing to adapt with a correlated talent pool threatens the timeliness, relevance and quality of market-driven products and services.

Informal sponsorship, facilitated by social familiarity and shared interests/experiences, perpetuates the acceleration of white male careers while limiting minority access. Intentional sponsorship, designed for the future of work, pairs existing leaders with high performing, high potential diverse employees to disrupt both historical inertia and unconscious bias in succession management. Leaders should take it upon themselves to seek out and engage diverse employees in the organization whom they can commit to sponsor and provide support to advance their careers — from hiring to promotion and beyond."

Being an effective sponsor is not necessarily hard, but it is purposeful. It requires you use empathy to imagine yourself in the position of someone with less influence who wants to be seen, heard and valued. It’s also about providing air cover for someone who, despite their strong potential, likely will make mistakes from which they can learn and grow. It all begins with the fundamental belief that your actions are about them, not about you.

Here are some ways you can become a more effective sponsor for others:

  1. Speak on their behalf when they are not present. Represent them fairly with an emphasis on past performance but also future potential.
  2. Define opportunities to showcase their capabilities and thinking. Invite their contributions in meetings and allocate sections of presentations for them to own and deliver.
  3. Create exposure, even without deliverables, for them to see how decision-making and organizational dynamics really happen. This is particularly true for C-suite meetings to which they may not have direct access on their own.
  4. Tell others about their achievements, not only what they did but what you learned about their leadership attributes in the process.
  5. Seek their opinions both publicly and privately. Provide them the opportunity to test their ideas, assess their soundness and persuade you of their viability.
  6. Express gratitude for their contributions and acknowledge what you have learned from them. Exposure to the fresh ideas of others is an added perk of sponsorship.
  7. Communicate your implicit knowledge in an explicit way. Understanding the context for decisions deepens their insights and enables sustained behavior change.
  8. Share your imperfections and the lessons you’ve learned. Knowing that you have made mistakes — and survived and thrived — not only builds trust in you as a sponsor but motivates others to lean into new areas of professional growth.

The views reflected in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization.

About the Author

Mary Slaughter is the Global Head of Employee Experience at Morningstar, an investment research and management firm headquartered in Chicago, IL. Prior to joining Morningstar, she served as a managing director, People Advisory Services at EY.


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