Weaving business and people together

Sponsors and mentors, bacon and eggs.

December 15th, 2017


bacon and eggs

It’s one of the topics du jour, the lack of women at senior levels. Researchers report, with frustration, that despite addressing the problem in multiple ways over many years, numbers remain lower than we all want. From the obvious means of rational persuasion about the business benefit, target-setting, offering women development, making promotion and HR systems more transparent, to more diffuse (and often unproven) approaches like unconscious bias training, the numbers shift too slowly, and not always upwards.

My own work with women in the workspace has been in Professional Service firms. Most services firms were spawned as partnerships, they work in a matrix structure and one of the core processes they use in supporting people to exec is sponsorship of the aspiring exec/partner by a more senior member of the firm. Some very quick interviews of sponsors and their sponsorees (sorry… but there is no other word) reveal, as with any managerial process, some consistency of intent but a big variation in practice and emphasis. What is starting to shout out at me right now is how incredibly important the role of sponsor is, so I would like to make one short but rather big point about it.

I’m going to stick my neck out here. If we really want to make a difference, sponsoring is way, way more important than mentoring. Mentoring is lovely and essential and valuable, but it’s more developmental in focus. It’s about helping someone navigate their way, explaining the organisation from a more elevated perspective, seeing the bigger systemic picture and clarifying what skills, experience and development will ready people for their next role. It’s not particularly time and energy-consuming and has a feel-good factor associated with it. It isn’t usually time-bound and it doesn’t usually have organisational imperatives attached to it. It’s a choice and a preference.

Sponsorship, on the other hand, is a statement of commitment to that person. It requires a good, long hard look at the individual and what they really need to get to grips with. A good sponsor gives very clear direction and feedback to the individual and tackles the difficult conversations, but a great sponsor does most of their work when they are not with that person. They clear the path through challenging perceptions, actively seeking and creating opportunities, shifting structures and spotting potential pitfalls way out front. They build a story about and with that person until the requirement to promote them becomes an inevitable next step for all. They stand firmly behind them and relentlessly advocate and crusade, albeit with political nous. They take risks. They are emotionally engaged in that person’s future in a completely different way from a mentor, and they don’t stop after the first promotion.

A bit like the story about your fry up and the difference between the eggs and the bacon – in the matter of breakfast, the chicken’s involved, the pig’s committed.

Don’t be a chicken.

  1. What a great, and important, point you’re making Anne. And I would add a point about the importance of women seeking out and approaching a potential sponsor. I sure here there are people who would be great sponsors, who already rate women they work with but don’t realise the part they can play. All progress begins with a conversation, so get out there are start talking!

    by: Susan Grandfield on December 15, 2017 at 2:57 pm
    • I think you’re so right about asking. I don’t think I ever raised my head from my work to think about it, at a time when it would have really made a difference. I really wish I had now.

      by: Anne Owen on January 5, 2018 at 6:13 pm


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