Authentic sponsorship is key for employee progression

In her latest article for HBR, Herminia Ibarra explains why mentorship of juniors by seniors is no longer enough and offers tips on how to do sponsorship right

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Mentoring, sponsorship, and advocacy initiatives have long been championed by companies seeking to provide professional development opportunities to junior members of staff. Such initiatives are invariably based on the principle that if companies match successful, seasoned executives with up-and-coming professionals, especially those from underrepresented groups, all will reap the benefits. The reality is quite different, however, as Charles Handy Chair in Organisational Behaviour and LBS Professor of Organisational Behaviour Herminia Ibarra reveals in her latest article for Harvard Business Review.

Professor Ibarra has written extensively on the difference between sponsorship – a “helping relationship in which senior, powerful people use their personal clout to talk up, advocate for, and place a more junior person in a key role” – and mentorship whereby mentors share their knowledge, perspective and experience. The fact that sponsors use their power to advocate for their protégés’ promotion and ensure that they are visible to key decision-makers makes a crucial difference. It is this difference which makes sponsorship a valuable tool for actively promoting employees from underrepresented groups into senior positions and providing them with access to stretch assignments and mission-critical roles.

In her latest article on the subject, Professor Ibarra stresses that companies must focus on public advocacy – a one-way process by which “seniors” use their power to help “juniors” get career opportunities – and relational authenticity – a two-way process in which both parties share their perspectives and make themselves open to hearing and learning from each other – if they are to reap the full benefits of developmental relationships and create “authentic sponsorship”.

As Professor Ibarra so succinctly writes, “We become who we are with help and support from those around us, and we all yearn for authenticity in our significant relationships. The same needs and desires underlie developmental relationships in the workplace… If we want to realize the full benefits of developmental relationships – and ensure that members of underrepresented groups share equally in them – we need to create the organizational conditions that will allow a new model of authentic sponsorship to emerge.”