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Look beyond your boss for influential sponsors: Sylvia Ann Hewlett

Interview with founder, Center for Talent Innovation

Rohit Nautiyal 

Through well-designed programmes sponsorship can be incorporated into the corporate culture of an organisation, Hewlett tells Rohit Nautiyal

Can sponsorship go beyond a choice made by two individuals and become part of a corporation's culture? What will it take on part of leaders to breed a 'sponsorship syndrome' in their companies?


Sponsorship is an organic relationship that works best when two people are really engaged and committed, not forced to partake in it. Putting two random people together for the sake of achieving sponsorship does not work well at times. A sponsor must feel confident that a protege will deliver as the protege will be walking around with his/her sponsors' brand on the forehead. The best company programmes are the ones that support the development of the relationship and ensure both parties have the proper tools to make it a success. Once company leaders see the benefit of sponsorship through such programmes, sponsorship will be incorporated into the corporate culture as a necessary ingredient for employee advancement and growth.

Sponsorship, by definition, cannot be a a relationship among equals.

Who benefits the most in this relationship and who has the onus of making it a success?

As I mentioned earlier, sponsorship is a two-way street. But keep in mind that a protege must do 70 per cent of the work. Proteges have to deliver through stellar performance, loyalty to the sponsor and the organisation, and by contributing a distinct value-add that helps burnish the sponsor's brand across the organisation. A protege who excels at these components of sponsorship will positively impact the sponsor's own personal brand, which is vital to justifying the benefits of sponsorship to others in the corporate world. I have tried my best to create one of the how-to roadmap for both proteges and sponsors to excel in sponsorships.

In the chapter 'Scan the horizon for potential sponsors' in your latest book, Find a Sponsor, you suggest that it would be a better idea to eye the top boss or the person your boss reports to for sponsorship. Don't you think doing so could backfire and spoil one's relationship with his/her immediate boss who may feel left out?

You need to be very strategic and tactful when finding a sponsor. A direct manager may be great but he may not have the power within an organisation required of an effective sponsor. If you decide on your boss' boss or someone they work closely with, do not worry: doing a great job for your sponsor will be beneficial for your boss as well. Your sponsor will feel confident that your direct manager is doing a great job training and developing you as a leader, which in the end, will work to enhance his or her reputation.

Are there examples of companies already practicing sponsorship on a large scale? What does your research show up?

Yes. We've worked with several of our Task Force companies to create pathways to sponsorship within their organisations. A few of the featured company programmes that focus on sponsorship for women and people of colour include American Express' Women in the Pipeline and at the Top, Chartis' Sponsorship for Women in Leadership, and Citi's Women Leading Citi. These programmes are focused on helping senior women and people of colour reach their career potential by improving their networks, fostering sponsorship relationships, and creating a gender-inclusive culture across the organisation. Many participants have seen an increase in the advancement of their target talent into senior positions.

Despite all the precautions you have listed that women should take while handling relationships with sponsors, people within or outside the organisation, who are not affected by the equation, will continue to look at sponsorships with suspicion. How can one break this vicious circle? There have been just too many corporate scandals in recent years...

While women need to consider the challenges posed by sex, scandal, or innuendo, the responsibility for keeping the relationship safe shouldn't rest solely on their shoulders. If sponsorship is a two-way street, then keeping that street clear of career-wrecking garbage demands participation from both parties. As a sponsor, you must display relentless professionalism, meet openly, and keep spouses and children literally in the picture. Additionally, there's also a troubling disconnect between what companies think they are doing to address the problem of sex in the workplace and what they have actually accomplished. Policies that are less than airtight or are enforced differentially send a message that some employees are valued more than others and can be excused from punishment should they overstep. At the end of the day, how serious a company is about punishing its offenders says a lot about its culture.

Has there been any backlash to the views endorsed by your book from any section... say from the feminists?

Sponsorship is how power is transferred in society. The goal of my book on sponsorship is to add transparency to a method high-performing straight, white males have leveraged for years to move up the ranks and a method that has not been as available to women and people of colour. It is human nature to sponsor individuals who look like you or who come from a similar background. White men hold the majority of powerful positions in this country and, as such, those most likely to be sponsored are professionals who resemble those in power.

This work was done in an effort to level the playing field by raising awareness about this critical tool needed to advance and, push those in power to seek proteges who may not look like them but who can offer a breadth and depth of experience that will significantly add to their own career progression.

Sponsorship must be earned. It is not a gift. Those who win sponsorship are deserving, high-performing talent.

The handholder

* Led by Hewlett, the is a Manhattan-based think tank focused on realising the new streams of talent in the global labour market

* For the last nine years, Hewlett has been the director of the Gender and Policy Programme at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. She is also co-director of the Women's Leadership Programme at the Columbia Business School

* Hewlett has taught at Cambridge, Columbia, and Princeton universities and has held fellowships at the Institute for Public Policy Research in London and the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at Harvard

* She is a prolific author with 10 books and many Harvard Business review articles to her credit. Hewlett is a frequent guest on TV and radio programmes like The Oprah Winfrey Show, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, BBC World News, among others

* In her latest book Find a Sponsor, she argues that a sponsor - a senior-level champion who believes in her protege's potential and is willing to advocate for that next raise - is an employee's ticket to the top and not a mentor. She provides a detailed comparison between a sponsor and a mentor who's an experienced person willing to help and support the mentee without expecting anything in return

First Published: Mon, December 02 2013. 00:08 IST
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