A sponsor puts his or her reputation on the line to advocate for women in leadership positions.
How do sponsors operate and sustain their commitment on a day to day basis?
A sponsor is courageous.
A sponsor puts his or her reputation on the line to advocate for women in leadership positions, often in the face of great resistance.
Noor Abid, Ernst & Young's Assurance Leader for the Middle East and North Africa, works in a region that is traditionally resistant to women's autonomy.
Yet he is leading efforts to overturn customs that hinder women's progress in business. And he's getting results.
Abid's initiatives range from changing policies to one-on-one sponsorship. He is attentive to the practical demands of women's lives in the region and how sponsorship can be instrumental in overcoming these barriers.
Abid is passionate about the importance of attracting women to the profession and the changes necessary to accomplish this — and passion can mean standing one's ground and battling entrenched attitudes.
In Bahrain, where he is based today, bright, talented women educated in the West typically return to work for the government, which offers an attractive 8:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. schedule, with no overtime and few obstacles.
"Women here face significant pressure to take care of their households, their husbands and their children,"says Abid, pointing out that businesses that fail to adapt to the needs of women will lose out on a critical talent base.
Beginning in FY11, Ernst & Young in the Middle East and North Africa established flexible working hours throughout the region to attract and retain women. Along the way, Abid undoubtedly felt for himself some of the pressure women are facing.
The sponsor also has the ability to balance the belief in an individual's ability with a dose of reality. As strong as the desire is to help someone advance to a better position, it's critical to step back from forcing a situation where the odds of success are long.
As pointed out in a recent Catalyst study, Sponsoring women to success, "Sponsorship is high stakes for the Sponsor, the Protégé and the Organization."
A sponsor demonstrates and asks for commitment.
Ellen Moore, President, Chubb Insurance Company of Canada, knows the benefits of sponsorship first-hand — as well as the requisite active commitment.
More than two decades ago she was fortunate to have a male executive in her corner who was a fervent, involved advocate of sponsorship.
"He truly believed in the business case for diversity," she recalls. Eventually, he was given responsibility for the company-wide sponsorship program. From her early experiences onward, Moore understands the importance of sponsors investing their time.
The commitment, then, be perceived as worthwhile and delivering results.
At Chubb, executives are accountable for increasing the number of women in senior ranks.
The process is built into Chubb's management practices. These include "very robust" succession planning and mentoring programs which transcend borders. While there are no quotas, performance metrics exist for expected outcomes; but the expectations run in both directions.
Moore has this advice for women who get the sponsorship of a senior executive:
- Establish ground rules and protocols early
- Agree on expectations and time frame
- Meet the standards for performance
Michel Lanteigne, Chairman of the Starr Foundation, is passionate about the power of sponsorship. There is no magic to his method.
Beyond insight and judgment, Lanteigne says, persistence and continuity are essential in helping women advance to senior positions. Once the individual has achieved a position of great responsibility, the sponsor must stay involved.
"Follow-up is critical," Lanteigne advises, particularly if other executives are resistant to change. "Once I identify an executive with the right combination of talent and ability, I become their advocate. I never give up."
"Make sponsorship a sustainable business practice. We want it to be integrated in everything we do. We never want to limit participation to women because we want these activities to develop as sustainable business practices for all." – Annalisa King, Senior Vice President and CFO, Best Buy Canada Ltd.
– Annalisa King, Senior Vice President and CFO, Best Buy Canada Ltd.
A sponsor can spot talent.
Women's advancement can be derailed by a lack of flexibility in corporate culture. That culture may maintain unspoken assumptions about women. It may go unsaid that it's somehow risky to offer women stretch assignments or intensely challenging tasks because their life commitments may pose conflicts.
Male leaders can counter these attitudes. They can encourage women to be ready for growth opportunities and work creatively to address some of the unique challenges women face.
For Philip Hourquebie, Ernst & Young Managing Partner for Central & Southern Europe, the sponsorship journey started in his native South Africa where he not only witnessed the women's rights movement in Africa but actively supported the agenda for women's empowerment.
As Managing Partner for Africa, Hourquebie persuaded Ernst & Young leaders to depart from conventional wisdom around advancing women.
He cites the example of a talented female professional who was being groomed for leadership. A practice leader left unexpectedly, providing an opportunity to promote the young woman to lead the practice, rather than an older male partner.
With Hourquebie as her sponsor, the young woman was promoted and continues to take on more leadership responsibilities. In this example, sponsorship was a winning strategy for the woman and the business.
Sponsors also understand the experiential stepping-stones to high-profile future opportunities.
Annalisa King is the Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer for Best Buy Canada Ltd. She's been named three times as one of Canada's Most Powerful Women by the Women's Executive Network, and was inducted into their Hall of Fame last year.
Her substantial portfolio at Best Buy Canada includes strategic planning, budget/reporting, accounting and tax and financial analysis. Additionally, she oversees information technology, legal and real estate.
It was at Maple Leaf Foods, Canada's largest food company, where King experienced her pivotal "crescendo moment," in her career.
After King had served four and a half years as a Vice President of Finance, Maple Leaf CEO Michael McCain encouraged her to take on the role of Senior Vice President of Business Transformation.
It would be a unique and varied role, well outside her familiar finance role, but clearly McCain saw something. "That experience was essential to my being prepared for my current role at Best Buy," King says.
A sponsor plans.
American Banker magazine recognized Harris Bank and the efforts of President Ellen Costello, Harris Financial Group, for putting together a "top team" of women in executive leadership roles. Now, women occupy approximately one-third of the executive positions at Harris. (Harris Financial Corp. is part of BMO Financial Group.)
Costello demonstrated strong leadership to ensure that talent and performance management is an ongoing priority at Harris. Three or four times a year her executives review the pipeline of talent and skills with an eye towards current or anticipated openings among the leadership ranks.
All of this paved the way for mentoring and sponsorship in various formats, from "speed mentoring" to peer-to-peer and executive-level one-on-one support. Costello herself sets the example for her direct reports.
"We make sure we have a pool of diverse candidates in both race and gender at every level," she says. It doesn't happen by accident. It takes commitment, over time: it takes a plan.
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