As a leader, you want the best person in each position to do the best job to achieve the best results for your company. Often, the “best person” is a woman or diverse staff member.

Women in leadership roles earn their position because of their skills, hard work, and perseverance. In addition, often times a man advocated on her behalf. When a woman rises to an executive leadership role, chances are she got there because somewhere along the line a man recommended her, sponsored her, supported her, or encouraged her in some way.

This statement is not meant to take anything away from strong women in the workplace earning their roles. I say this for two reasons: 

#1 – It’s just math. There are so few women in top spots that if you are the first woman in the role, in your company or industry, then a man helped you get there.  

#2 – Because that’s what happened for me and many of the women I know. 

As Cathy Jones, CEO of Sun Commercial Real Estate, acknowledged “I really benefited early in my career from having a boss who saw my potential and pushed me to succeed in ways I didn’t know I could. I am now the CEO and Owner of my own company in part because of what I learned from Terry Wright at Nevada Title Company early in my career. He was amazing at developing people based on their unique talents. He was able to identify an individual’s potential and develop them as leaders. I follow that same philosophy today in my own company.”

In case the terms are synonymous in your mind, “sponsorship” is different from “mentorship.” Mentors talk to you, and sponsors talk about you. Mentorship is providing guidance for how someone can achieve their goals. Sponsorship is using your position and power to achieve business objectives by advancing another’s career. Both are essential for individuals to experience continued advancement in their careers. 

“It is important to realize you need different sponsors and mentors at different times as you grow and evolve as a leader in your career,” says Carol Schmekel of Schmekel Coaching and Consulting. 

Sponsoring a woman is not only the right thing to do; it is good for business! I spoke with men who have been actively sponsoring and mentoring women for most of their careers and women who have been sponsored and mentored by men to devise a simple 5 step plan you can implement today. 

1. Acknowledge your advantage and power – then use it for good 

While many companies do not have a level playing field, let us put that aside for now and focus on our individual advantages. The mere acceptance of what “is” allows us to explore ways to influence and help others. The men I interviewed for this article acknowledged they have power. They also believe it is their duty and responsibility to use that power to benefit those without it.  

“I believe the single biggest thing MEN can do is to recognize and OWN our privilege in this space. ‘Owning privilege’ is to acknowledge and challenge the unfair systems, structures, policies and unconscious bias impeding the progress of women today.” Craig Coffey, Founder & President, Way Maker Leadership. 

2. Do a self-assessment of your team 

Look at your team through the lens of diversity. Often, this exercise creates an unavoidable observation that the team looks a lot like the leader. Other times, it shows the team possesses common traits, i.e., they are mostly outspoken personalities. Look for where you have gaps. Be intentional about recruiting people who will help fill those gaps and create a strong team. The more well-rounded your team is with diverse life experiences, diverse attributes, skills, and talents, the more successful you will be today and especially in the future.

I spoke with Bob Coffman, Principal and Founder of Coffman Consultants, who is a real leader in this area. Bob’s experience in the military and civil service as well as that of his wife Katherine (KC), drove Bob to be very intentional about the leaders and teams he creates. When women were included in his senior ranks, he made sure they felt they were key members of the team and sought their opinions on critical matters. He created an inclusive culture for his team, which made them highly successful. When you are focused on placing the right person in the job, you have better results. 

3. Engage in a reverse-mentor relationship with someone who does not look like you 

This is a pivotal step for those who work with people who look and think like them. Suppose you are a man and have not had a professional, candid conversation with a woman or someone of color. In that case, you don’t have the information you need to be empathetic and genuinely understand their point of view. 

As stated by Dr. Kimberly DeSimone in her article, Beyond Gender: Reconceptualizing Understandings of Work-life Balance and the Extreme Work Model for 21st-century High-potential Top Earners, “Even today, at the highest levels of leadership and the top earner levels, men often have a stay-at-home spouse who provides the support that enables men to enact the single-minded devotion.” If you engage in the conversation being recommended, you will gain a broader perspective on this and other issues faced by women who generally don’t have the benefit of a stay-at-home spouse. 

4. Create greater access and opportunity for others to be in the room 

If you are in a leadership role and regularly have meetings with your team or other departments, ask yourself, “Who else would benefit from being here?” When you meet with senior executives, consider including a female or diverse staff member who may not otherwise have that access. This is a great way to contribute to the leadership pipeline development. As cited in the recent Women in the Workplace 2019, a study undertaken by McKinsey and LeanIn.Org., “The case for fixing the broken rung is powerful. If women are promoted and hired to first-level managers at the same rates as men, we will add one million more women to management in corporate America over the next five years.” 

5. Find someone to sponsor who does not look like you 

Evaluate the junior ranks and find someone who does not look like you. Assess their talents and skills. Determine your level of belief in their potential. Meet with them and learn what they need to succeed. Be intentional about providing advocacy for their next promotion. 

For the women reading this article, consider this advice from Hector Fernandez, President – Americas & EMEA, Aristocrat Technologies, Inc. “Find someone whose style you like and has the job you desire. Ask them to take you on the journey with them. Choose someone high enough to be your advocate and speak on your behalf behind closed doors.” Hector has a long history of sponsoring diverse employees throughout his career. “Companies must have an equitable culture to attract and retain strong qualified women. The most successful companies have solved the issue of inclusivity. It is not a question of the whether it is the right thing. Study after study has proven it is the necessary thing.” 

I am committed to helping leaders develop the skills they need to succeed in their careers. Are you interested in learning more about these concepts? Would you like to identify areas of improvement for your company?