The power of sponsor-advocacy relationships is not very well understood in many organizations even though these relationships have been the electricity of career progress as long as there have been careers. Intentional sponsorship and advocacy is frequently the missing element in building inclusive environments where all top talent can thrive.
The issue of sponsorship and advocacy is often subtle and requires a close look at how individuals move through the organization. How do they advance? How do they become visible? What is considered an increase in value delivered that puts someone on "the radar screen"? Many of the subtle but essential rules about how an individual advances in an organization are real but unwritten. As a result , it is critical that all top talent have access to sponsor-advocates in their career journey.
Sponsor- advocacy in the development and career advancement process is often missing for emerging leaders, especially those who represent diversity from the current and past leadership teams. This is not because those in positions of influence are deliberately or even consciously excluding anyone but because human beings regularly exhibit something called "affinity bias". This is simply a pattern of identifying with those who remind us of ourselves , with those on a path similar to the one we have taken. We reach out to those who we feel an affinity with and "take them under our wing". As a result of these human patterns the natural formation of traditional sponsor-advocate relationships can unevenly provide critical "survive and thrive" training.
In most organizations there remains a lack of broadly defined diversity in the majority of positions of influence and power. The positions that represent deep knowledge of the unwritten rules are still today not held by individuals who represent a broad definition of diversity. In many cases, senior leaders naturally reach out to younger leaders who remind them of themselves as protoges. When asked, senior leaders are often not aware that an uneven execution of sponsor- advocacy is happening and they are a party to it. When the question of why more emerging leaders who represent broader diversity are not in their circle the leaders often indicate that they do not feel they can be a mentor to women, minorities, GLBT, or the disabled. They acknowledge, when asked to reflect, that they have reached out naturally to people they feel they can help because they have walked the same road. These influential leaders sometimes feel they do not have as much to offer the individuals who they perceive to be walking a different road. This is in fact not the case, there is much they have to offer and it is possibly even more important they offer it to those who represent diversity because these individuals have less access to critical information about the majority culture. In addition, these individuals may represent unique perspectives, networks, and experiences that will make the organization stronger.
These factors are a catalyst behind the lack of an even playing field for all top talent. Without the same access to senior leadership, critical learning and developmental experiences,all individuals do not have the same opportunities.
Moving through an organization seeking advancement is a very
real journey. This journey is one that requires a map that comes from a sponsor- advocate. All individuals should be thinking about gaps in experiences needed to increase our skill level and our balance sheet of talent. It is important to first understand what the organization is looking for in its emerging leaders. This is not always , in fact not often , written. A sponsor-advocate provides critical information that helps the individual understand where they are on track and where they are missing the mark. While understanding high value activities is the first step in efficient career navigation, an individual is not always in a position to acquire access to these opportunities and experiences without someone in the inner circle acting as an advocate. In some cases, it is nearly impossible to broker opportunities such as committee assignments, over seas promotions, strategic client relationships, profit and loss responsibility without assistance. Advocacy from those in positions of influence is required.
Many emerging female and minority leaders do not have deep sponsor-advocate relationships. This fact slows the career progress of these diverse leaders. It creates real difference , not only in the opportunities that this talent has access to but also meaningful differences in learning and skill development. While it may be heresy to post this next comment- it is true. When we hear that there were no female or diverse candidates for promotion that were qualified...it is sometimes true because these candidates have not had the experiences needed to qualify them for the new opportunity largely because of a lack of sponsor-advocate intervention.
What can we do as individuals and organizations? Individuals must work to form relationships with senior leaders in order to access critical career navigation information and support. If you represent diversity from the current leadership team it is important that you work even more proactively to develop these relationships as they may not form naturally without you acting as a catalyst. The good news is that talented individuals can get what is needed from multiple relationships and sources, and in fact should not expect to get everything from one sponsor-advocate. Putting all of your efforts into one relationship is not a good strategy because there will always be change within organizations. How hard a talented individual works and the quality of their work is not the only thing that matters... it is the merely price of entry. Talented individuals need to know if they are doing the right things at the right time in their career. In addition, the right people must know they are doing the right things. The "right things" are those things recognized as having top value to the organization.
Organizations that understand all of the above take a hard look
at their assignment, promotion and sponsor-advocacy processes. Uneven access to senior leadership can be addressed through awareness raising, sponsor-advocacy programming and an enhanced talent development culture.