By Melissa J. Anderson

“Sponsors can be a core differentiators for proteges, particularly as they move up in the organization and competition becomes fiercer,” explained Heather Foust-Cummings, PhD, Senior Research Director at Catalyst, and lead author of the organization’s new report, “Sponsoring Women to Success,” released today.

But having a protege is a career booster for senior leaders as well. “Sponsorship was a trait of effective leadership” she explained.

The study, which Foust-Cummings co-authored with Sarah Dinolfo and Jennifer Kohler, explained that many people and companies are still confusing sponsorship with mentoring. The report says, “While a mentor may be a sponsor, sponsors go beyond the traditional social, emotional, and personal growth development provided by many mentors. Sponsorship is focused on advancement and predicated on power.”

And that relationship of power goes both ways. Proteges benefit from having someone pulling them into new roles and opening doors they might not have known existed. But sponsors also gain career capital when the individuals they have in pocket do well.

Foust-Cummings said, “The sponsor can gain reputational capital by sponsoring someone who does well and becomes a leader. The sponsor gains the reputation of someone who can spot good talent and advance them.” As talent management and succession planning become ever more important issues for great leaders, building an effective sponsor-protege relationship should be top of mind for those climbing to the top.

Here’s how companies can build the culture of sponsorship that ensures their next generation of high potential talent receives high quality, powerful development, and those already at the top understand why it matters to them.

How Companies can Nourish a Culture of Sponsorship

Companies benefit from sponsorship, Foust-Cummings said, because it ensures the most high potential talent is nurtured, retained, and developed into leadership.

“It’s really important that organizations don’t leave sponsorship to chance,” she said.

“First, make the expectation of sponsorship really clear. Say sponsorship is something that good leaders do. Build that into performance management, whether that means it comes up during performance reviews or in succession planning.”

Second, she continued, show off sponsorship when it’s successful. “Role model it – feature people who are successful at it and make sure it gets communicated throughout the organization, whether in your intranet, newsletter, or by other means.”

Why Do Leaders Need to be Conscious Sponsors?

As Catalyst’s December report “Mentoring: Necessary but Insufficient for Advancement” explained, women sorely need sponsorship. Right out of the gate upon entering the workforce, men begin earning more than women, and one reason for women’s slower career progression is a lack of access to unseen networks of power. Sponsoring Women to Success explains:

“Done well, sponsorship can serve as a highly effective intervention to accelerate women’s career velocity. Lack of sponsorship is one indicator of what’s really been holding many women back – exclusion from organizations’ most influential networks. Sponsorship can finesse access to these powerful networks, providing impressive benefits to leaders, high-performing employees, and organizations themselves.”

Gaining key access to networks of power is the main benefit of being a protege. But what does getting into the sponsorship game do for individuals who are already into positions of power?

According to Foust-Cummings, the sponsorship-protege relationship is triple win. The sponsor, protege, and organization all benefit from the mutually beneficial relationship.

She continued, “Sponsors themselves benefited in two important ways. First, our research showed that sponsors really benefited from the access to information they gained into different levels in the organization, from understanding the culture of the organization.”

With more insight into different levels of the firm, senior people get a better sense of what’s going on in the fabric of the organization. “Sponsors become better leaders,” Foust-Cummings explained.

Second, she said, was the fulfillment sponsors receive from helping develop a promising individual. “It’s the deep sense of personal and professional satisfaction they gained from being an advocate for someone and watching their career grow.”