By Melissa J. Anderson

According to Catalyst’s latest report, “Leaders Pay It Forward,” individuals who have received career development support like mentorship or sponsorship are more likely to offer that kind of support to their own protégés moving forward.

That’s why it’s so important for companies to create a culture of sponsorship, explained Christine Silva, co-author of the report along with Sarah Dinolfo and Nancy M. Carter. When high potentials have been sponsored, they are more likely to help develop the next generation of leaders for the company.

“Sponsorship helps protégés develop concrete skills and demonstrate their potential. It also helps mitigate perceived risk that certain candidates might have.” After all, a sponsor is lending his or her credibility to a protégé when unlocking doors to key assignments, promotions, or relationships. “They’re saying, ‘I’ve worked with her. I know she’s ready.’”

But there’s more. Since high potentials who have been sponsored are more likely to be sponsors themselves, they are taking a more committed stake in the company’s future, meaning they’re more engaged and committed. And they’re more likely to continue to develop engaged and committed leaders.

She said, “There’s such great evidence that creating a culture of sponsorship can help high potentials advance their own careers and pay it forward. They position themselves as leaders who have the organization’s best interests in mind.”

Cultivating Leadership

“The first thing to do when you’re creating a culture of sponsorship is to start talking about sponsorship. From what we’ve heard, sponsorship already happens, but it’s often behind closed doors,” Silva explained.

By bringing it out into the open, companies can be sure that a complete range of talented individuals are receiving growth opportunities. “Right now, most sponsorship is not strategic, not managed, and companies are not making sure diverse candidates and women have access to it.”

She continued, “The other thing is for companies to ask how it is measured and how it is rewarded.” Companies can find ways for sponsorship to fit into the performance review or recognize it formally as a leadership competency.

It can also be combined with existing leadership development programs. “Think not only about formal sponsorship programs, but how sponsorship practices can be adopted into formal HR programs that are ongoing,” she suggested.

Finally, she said, companies should take a hard look at succession planning. “When you look at that list of who’s in the pipeline, how many have sponsors ensuring they have the key roles and responsibilities to make sure they’re ready when the time comes?”

Developing Effective Gender Diversity Champions

Catalyst’s research showed that women sponsor more individuals then men. Not only that, but they sponsor significantly more women than men. The study says that 73% of women sponsors are developing women, compared to only 30% of men. Silva suggests that this is a case of individuals sponsoring people who remind them of themselves.

But, there is also some discomfort around senior men sponsoring junior women. This discomfort can be overcome, Silva says.

“It goes back to needing to develop a culture of sponsorship. If the key expectation is that senior leaders sponsor both men and women, we can move away from the assumption that something inappropriate is going on if a senior man is sponsoring a younger woman.”

In fact, she said, in a culture of sponsorship, the opposite would be alarming. “We should move toward the assumption that if he isn’t sponsoring diverse candidates that something inappropriate is going on.”

This goes both ways, she said, and calls back to the business case for diversity. “In other research, we found that men who had female mentors were more likely to understand the value of diversity, and in both cases – men mentoring or sponsoring women and women mentoring or sponsoring men – more info can be shared about the challenges women might face in their careers. It can raise awareness around future and current female leaders.”

She added, “We want men and women alike to be champions for gender diversity.”