CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.
The way that organizations develop younger talent has changed a lot over time. In the 1970s and eighties, psychologists Daniel Levinson and Kathy Kram detailed how the best mentors empower young professionals to forge their identities and realized their dreams, and that this often fulfilled a deep-seated motivation for those mentors to help others.
Companies latched onto this power, they formed initiatives to match seasoned executives with up-and-coming professionals, often from underrepresented groups. The idea was to attract high performers and propel future leaders. Too often though, this arranged system fails to create impactful relationships. You got to get over misunderstandings, mistrust, risk aversion, and misaligned incentives.
And too often the very talent being mentored, cultivated as the future of the organization, leaves.
Today’s guest says this, disconnect in mentorship programs has gotten worse with remote and hybrid work. Herminia Ibarra is a professor at London Business School. She wrote the HBR article, “How to Do Sponsorship Right.” Herminia, thanks so much for coming on the show to talk about your article.
HERMINIA IBARRA: Hi, Curt. It’s great to be here.
CURT NICKISCH: Let’s level set to begin with. What are the benefits that people expect to get out of traditional mentorship programs? Why doesn’t this work?
HERMINIA IBARRA: Well, the reason why it doesn’t work is that organizations have tried to program it at scale. It all started with the observation that as the more junior ranks of an organization became more diverse, there were more women, more people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, those people were less likely to get mentoring, and they were less likely to get sponsored into promotions, in big stretch assignments that would help position them for the future.
That was less likely to happen spontaneously. And so they said, “Bingo, mentorship is the answer.” And later, “Bingo, mentorship isn’t enough. We have to give them sponsorship so that they advance.” And so they started matching people up with very, very good intentions. And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
But with anything that you do at scale, some of the matches are not going to work. Oftentimes what happens is people are a match with people who are so far outside their area of work, they can give some guidance, they can give some counsel.
But it’s very difficult to create that kind of enduring and ongoing bond that leads both people to really engage in that relationship that leads the senior person to want to invest more than their time, their capital, their political capital. And that leads the junior person to say, “Okay, this is maybe a little bit scary. This is stretching me beyond what I know how to do already, but I’m going to take the risk because I’ve got this person helping me through it.”
CURT NICKISCH: Is the issue just in formalizing these programs versus them being organic?
HERMINIA IBARRA: Yeah, of course. When these things happen organically, there is some kind of chemistry there. The senior person sees potential in the more junior or sees themselves in the more junior person. The junior person likewise looks up to the senior person says, “I’d like to be like him,” or “I’d like to be like her. This person’s a role model for me.”
When relationships are assigned, it takes a while to cultivate that. You can’t expect that click to happen just off the bat. You’ve got to work at cultivating a relationship that over time might have these possibilities, but you won’t know until you’ve invested in the relationship.
CURT NICKISCH: You’ve kind of hinted at this as we’ve gone along, but this like me bias. That people have, as soon as you’re doing this at scale, as soon as you’re trying to reach organizational goals, that kind of becomes more of a problem.
HERMINIA IBARRA: Well, first of all, people see potential when it looks like them, when it looks like how they showed potential.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. I’ve heard this criticism of people who give advice often in companies as they’re not always giving advice to the junior worker, they’re actually giving the advice they wish they had gotten when they were a junior.
HERMINIA IBARRA: To their younger self.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. Yeah. They’re coaching their younger self, which sometimes is very applicable, right? But other times may actually not be current or relevant.
HERMINIA IBARRA: Well, I actually studied this years ago, and it plays out in an interesting way when it comes to mentoring and sponsorship. Often people who are from underrepresented groups, they really want to have a mentor or sponsor who is like them because you want evidence that a person like me can succeed, and you want somebody who’s going to understand what are some of the experiences you’re having, what are some of the obstacles that you face.
However, the trick is that there’s not going to be that many people like that available, particularly at the very senior levels. Most of the time, and particularly when what you’re looking for is someone who can also play the sponsorship role, which is pull you up, talk you up, connect you at their level, give you high visibility assignments, those kinds of things. Oftentimes, it’s going to be someone who is different from you.
CURT NICKISCH: So how do you define authentic sponsorship and how is it different from the failed connections that we’re talking about here?
HERMINIA IBARRA: It’s really first important to distinguish between what is mentoring and what is sponsorship. So one person could play both roles, but they’re very different roles. A mentor is somebody who has knowledge and will share it with you. They’re going to invest their time in helping you learn. A sponsor is somebody who has power and will use it for you. They’re going to invest their political capital in you. So once more about personal development and learning and teaching the ropes, the other’s more about advancement and progression within the organization.
Now the reason why I talk about authentic sponsorship is because, again, organizations seeing that certain kinds of people are less likely to naturally get sponsored into mission critical roles and into big stretch assignments started assigning people to sponsors. And that really didn’t work because you cannot compel someone to spend their political capital on someone they don’t know yet or don’t much believe in yet.
You have to get to know each other. And so you can’t start off expecting sponsorship. What you can start off is nurturing a mentoring relationship in which people start to get to know each other and authentically as they come to trust and believe in each other. And that may happen or not, the relationship can then start to take on some of the sponsorship characteristics.
That mentor can start having more strategic conversations with the person about how to position themselves for a promotion. They can start connecting that person to people in their network who might be gatekeepers with whom they need visibility and exposure.
They might start positioning the person to give a high visibility presentation or to run an important meeting and so on. But those things evolve over time, and that’s what I mean by authenticity. That is both people are engaged in a relationship that grows in openness and trust, and therefore in the capacity of both to take action as a result of the relationship.
CURT NICKISCH: You talked about this power to really advocate for junior workers, to give them opportunities to find them stretch assignments. Can you talk a little bit more about what this looks like on the ground?
HERMINIA IBARRA: So two different things here. One is every organization has jobs and roles that are considered especially mission critical. So for example, it has to do with doing work that’s associated with revenues for the organization. That’s especially strategic. That puts them in touch with key customers and clients, for example. And so those roles, oftentimes there’s multiple people vying for them.
Those are the plum assignments that people want, and sponsors help position people for those. Now there’s also simply projects. So things that you do as part of your job without necessarily a title change or a progression, but you’re asked to get involved in a project that might have to do with looking at a new customer segment, for example, or a project that has to do with say, ESG factors in the organization.
And here too, projects differ in who’s involved in them, what’s the headcount, what’s the budget, what’s visibility with the C-suite. All of those things can vary enormously. And we know from past research that white men are more likely to get on projects that have more head count, more C-suite visibility and higher budgets.
And so another thing that sponsors can do is help position people into projects that have some of those qualities. So it’s really important to think about the activities in which you engage that are either setting you up to be a contender for the next big job or not.
CURT NICKISCH: Another important factor to highlight is relational authenticity.
HERMINIA IBARRA: Yeah. Well, relational authenticity means that both people in the relationship are being open and transparent and candid and real, as opposed to the junior person mostly spending their time managing impressions, trying to put their best foot forward constantly, and not being able to say, “Hey, this is maybe a developmental gap I have.”
Or, “Hey, I’ve been getting this feedback, this constructive feedback, and I don’t know quite what to do with it, how do I work with it.” Those kind of candid conversations. And on the flip side, the senior person can also hold back because they don’t know how the person’s going to react. This is called protective hesitation.
That is, you don’t give the feedback or you don’t give your impression because you don’t want to, you expect might get a negative reaction and you don’t want to deal with it. And so relational authenticity means that people can be open with each other about what they’re experiencing, about what they think, about what might be barriers to the person’s advancement, about what strengths are.
It also means, for example, as we were talking earlier, you get advice, great advice, and you think, “No way, this isn’t me. I can’t do this. It doesn’t feel right to me. It doesn’t feel authentic.” Can you say that to the mentor sponsor without them immediately concluding, “Oh, well, this person is not committed to progressing” or “This person lacks confidence” or “Why should I invest in them?” As a more junior person developing, you’re always going to have a mix of ambition and doubt. That’s normal. If you have no doubts, you’re not normal. Can you express that in that relationship without being written off?
CURT NICKISCH: This is clearly a process that takes time and investment. I love that term protective hesitation because I think we all can identify that and feel it. Is there a threshold that people have to get over first before you really reach authentic relationships?
HERMINIA IBARRA: So it’s going to go wrong or right in small steps, actually. When people don’t know each other well, they’re constantly gauging, “Is this person receptive to what I’m saying, or are they not? Do they react in ways that feel open or do they react in ways that feel defensive?” And particularly in the early stages of conversation, it’s just really important to approach the conversation with an attitude of curiosity.
“Oh, that’s interesting that you would see it that way. Can you tell me more?” As opposed to closing up when you’re getting feedback, that’s not what you might want to hear or not eliciting that kind of feedback. The sponsee or the protege can do a lot to signal to the mentor or sponsor that they’re open to hearing their perspective and their feedback and their sense of how feasible it is for them to achieve the goals that they have.
And by the reactions, they’re going to signal whether that senior person can feel open or not. Where it goes wrong is somebody says something and the other one says, “No, that’s wrong.” Or even worse, somebody says something and it just slides. It’s not discussed because one or the other does not feel capable of saying, “Well, let me challenge that a bit,” or “Maybe that’s not right for me.”
Or “Maybe it wouldn’t work this way, but can we talk about it further?” And I think it is that willingness to engage with what’s coming from the other person that makes a big difference.
Now we’ve got to be realistic here. We’re dealing with people in organizations in which we know there’s implicit bias, in which we know there are stereotypes about what leaders look like or what high potentials look like. And so people are going to be concerned about this. They’re going to be worried, they’re going to wonder, “Am I being stereotyped? Am I being discounted or am I being pushed into a corner?” And that’s when it gets a little bit harder is how do you then have a conversation that says, “The kind of feedback I’ve been getting is very typical of the kind of feedback women get. It’s not specific enough. How do you think I should handle this?” For example. And that takes some courage.
CURT NICKISCH: What’s striking to me as I hear you describe these relationships is just that you would think that there’s a real power dynamic here, and that the onus is really on the sponsor to set the right climate, but it really is a relationship. It’s a lot more complex than that. What can organizations do better to help create that climate and to create those connections?
HERMINIA IBARRA: They often do put a lot of effort into matching people, and that’s great. And the thing is, you’re never going to get it perfectly right. And so treating all of this with an attitude of learning and a growth mindset is really important. You’re not going to get it right. And in a lot of the organizations I work with, they make it very clear, “We’re not always going to get it right. If this match isn’t right, come back to us and we’ll rematch. And there’s no stigma associated with it. It just wasn’t the right match.”
So that’s already one thing. The other thing is they really need to provide some training, both to the proteges and to the mentors and sponsors about what this is all about, what the expectations are, what some of the trip wires are, this idea of protective hesitation and how it ends up depriving the person of the feedback they need to get better and to improve.
And so that training goes a long ways. I have to say, in some of the work that I’ve done with organizations, some of the best learning has been by putting sponsors together in groups to share perspectives, here’s what I did, here’s what worked, what didn’t work, here’s what I struggled with. And really learning from each other to up their game.
CURT NICKISCH: I’m just wondering, can you celebrate successes within an organization? Can you have them share how that worked?
HERMINIA IBARRA: Organizations measure that, right? So they’re looking at, they understand that nothing’s going to happen overnight. Successful sponsorship bears fruit a few years out, and most programs are short. They’re trying to catalyze things, understanding that you can’t can it in its entirety.
But organizations do measure how well they do. Measurement there is a little bit tricky because you’re kind of stacking your cards in your favor. Oftentimes, when you put people into a sponsorship program, it’s because you think they’re close to getting promoted. And so if they get promoted in a couple weeks into the program, you say, “Great, look at the great results from the program.” It just means you chose the right people.
So there have to be metrics beyond, did that person get promoted or not? And those metrics should be about people’s experience of the relationship and people’s experience of the organization. Is this a place in which I have opportunities to grow and to progress?
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. What about incentives for executives or senior employees to be sponsors and mentors? There are people who just intuitively their motivation is to help others, and they really get a big sense of fulfillment and satisfaction from that. Others less so, but you may want both as sponsors and mentors.
HERMINIA IBARRA: So other things equal, what you really want to strive for is a culture of mentoring and sponsorship, a culture in which developing the next generation, the next layer couple layers down is part of what’s expected of you as a leader. And people share that work and they talk about it. And it’s in talking about it that you get visibility over a whole cadre of people coming through.
Now as you alluded to earlier, some people are going to be more natural at this than others. I’ve seen, for example, just recently, I was working in an organization in which they wanted to assign their biggest producers to the sponsorship roles because these are the real kind of movers and shakers of the organization.
But some of these people are so focused on their producing role that they have not devoted enough time to their sponsorship responsibilities, to the chagrin of those people who were assigned to them. And it does create a dilemma. Do you then select only those people with an aptitude, and does that mean that then others get a bit of a free ride?
Or do you try to bring more people into the fold and say, “Even though you may not be a natural at this, we want you to learn how to do this.” And the thing is, those big producers, they’re going to be naturally sponsoring people who are easy to sponsor because they operate in ways that they recognize that are similar to theirs.
And that’s how a system reproduces itself and ends up lacking in diversity. And so for me, it’s really part of being a learning organization. How do you get more people to be curious enough about those next layers that are going to be different generationally in terms of gender, all kinds of things, their preferences for how they work. If you’re not curious enough about them, it’s going to be very, very hard to promote from within.
CURT NICKISCH: What is your recommendation for executives or senior level employees who may be reluctant or feel like it’s a distraction or they’re just worried they’re not going to be as good at it as they should be? How do you help them change their mind about that?
HERMINIA IBARRA: Well, you really can’t change people’s minds. All you can do is nudge them to some experiences that might eventually change their minds because of their own experiences. I think you give them support, you give them specifics. This is what’s expected, this is how you go about it. You don’t assume that they know how to do it. You give them language for how to have conversations.
I teach sponsors, how do you have a conversation that is open-ended yet produces an outcome, leads to a sense of, “We’ve gotten something done in this meeting.” And it helps them engage with their proteges and their sponsees in ways that are more productive, but you can’t assume that they’re going to know how to do it.
CURT NICKISCH: And what about the more junior people being mentored, what do you want them to know?
HERMINIA IBARRA: They need the same. I mean, I give them words they can use. Some organizations assign mentors and sponsors. Others say, “Find them yourselves.” And they need help simply even formulating what’s an email message looks like that in which I ask the more senior person, “Will you help me with my career?” And so you help them get as specific as possible to get to eliminate those early hurdles, hoping that once you’ve eliminated that initial awkwardness, things can start to take hold in a real way.
CURT NICKISCH: You’re trying to create interpersonal magic. Those were the words that you used in your article. And you’re trying to systematize that, and it’s just a challenging thing for an organization. And if you’re trying to do it at scale, even more so. Right?
HERMINIA IBARRA: Exactly.
CURT NICKISCH: What’s the biggest misconception about sponsorship programs that you want to clear up?
HERMINIA IBARRA: Well, one big misconception is that you’ve got to have this immediate chemistry between two people. That doesn’t happen. And if the two people are really quite different, it’s unlikely to happen just off the bat. It’s something that gets cultivated over time.
CURT NICKISCH: Chemistry makes things easy, but yeah.
HERMINIA IBARRA: Well, chemistry is often the result of having worked together and having engaged in maybe sometimes some difficult conversations. So that’s one misconception. I think no matter how much organizations make the distinction between mentoring and sponsorship and try to get across the sponsorship is about advancement and progression.
When programs are formal and pairs are assigned to each other, it rarely ever develops beyond mentoring. It rarely ever develops without help beyond the more senior person giving advice saying, “Here’s how I did it,” saying, “Talk to this person, talk to that person. Do this.”
CURT NICKISCH: “You might want to think about…”
HERMINIA IBARRA: Yeah. It doesn’t evolve into the more active stances. It doesn’t become a more public relationship where that senior person is clearly seen as advocating for the more junior, is connecting them to their network, is helping them position themselves. And even to the point of banging on the table and saying, “This is the person who should get the promotion.”
The relationships get stuck very, very early on. And that is because seniors and juniors don’t necessarily understand that this isn’t just about advice and information, it really is about pulling somebody up and having their back and being in the meeting where it happens, as conversations are taking place and people are debating the merits of different candidates for the big jobs.
CURT NICKISCH: It’s worth underlining here, just one more time. What is the cost of that when it doesn’t advance from mentorship to sponsorship? What are organizations losing out on?
HERMINIA IBARRA: Oh, the cost is you can’t diversify your senior ranks. It’s very clear. Why is it that organizations that have been working at diversity for 30 years, and certainly the length of my career, still struggle to see more diversity at the C-suite and C-suite minus one level?
Why is it? Because people who are different are not getting into those mission critical roles that are responsible for the revenues of the organization, for the strategic future of the organization. Why are a more diverse set of people not getting into those roles? Because they don’t have sponsors who are saying, “Herminia should get that job. It’s her turn, she’s ready for it.
She may not look on paper that she has ticked all the boxes, but she has this confidence, that capability and that potential. And so she should get that job.” And that’s the only way you get more diversity at the senior ranks of an organization. So the cost of staying in the mentorship arena and not moving into sponsorship, or as I talk about it, not moving up the sponsorship spectrum to more public advocacy is you don’t diversify. And some of that top talent leaves.
CURT NICKISCH: What’s your hope? What do you want to see happen when companies make sponsorship, do sponsorship right, to kind of borrow from your title?
HERMINIA IBARRA: The hope is that a broader array of people in the organization understand that developing talent is part of their job and genuinely want to get better at it and want to learn how to do that. Because you see, this is when this works, it’s reciprocal.
It’s not just about helping the junior person move up, it’s also about helping the more senior person learn about a different set of people, learn through the eyes of somebody who is positioned differently in the organization, who’s having different kinds of experiences.
And that also lets the more senior person continue to grow and contribute in a different way to the organization. So the hope is that these things are mutually enriching for both juniors and seniors. And in the process, allow the organization to finally fulfill the promise of diversity.
CURT NICKISCH: Herminia, thanks so much for coming on the show to talk about your article.
HERMINIA IBARRA: Thanks. Thanks to you Curt.
CURT NICKISCH: That’s Herminia Ibarra, professor at London Business School and author of the HBR article, How to Do Sponsorship Right. You can find it in the November, December 2022 issue of Harvard Business Review and at hbr.org. And we have more episodes and more podcasts to help you manage your team, manage organizations, and manage your career.
Find them at hbr.org/podcast or search HBR in Apple podcast, Spotify, or wherever you listen. This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Ian Fox. And Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant.
Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Curt Nickisch.