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Sylvia Ann Hewlett uncovers ‘The Sponsor Effect’

Posted By Barb Francella, Tuesday, October 23, 2012

While there has been tremendous progress for women in lower and middle management, women are often stuck in this "marzipan” layer -- the rich and sticky stratum just below the highest levels of leadership, according to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation.

But sponsorship, Hewlett said, is a way out. Her mission -- to engage senior leaders who see the importance of broad-minded thinking -- is challenged by the lack of executives who will serve as sponsors to women, even as they could benefit from strong and valid ideas they bring to the table.

Women are stuck in the marzipan layer, in part, because they tend to take fewer risks in the workplace, Hewlett said during her executive-level workshop "The Sponsor Effect” during the NEW Leadership Summit 2012 in Dallas. When women do take risks, it’s important they have a sponsor who will provide "air cover.” Mentors, she said, seldom provide that type of support.

"You need someone two levels up [to sponsor you,]” Hewlett said. "It can't be a peer. And it's important to remember if you only contribute performance and loyalty, you will be someone's ‘Number 2’ forever. You must also have star quality, the capability to deliver the work and ideas that compel seniors to tap you on the shoulder.”

Of full-time employees in large companies, men are 46 percent more likely to have a sponsor, and are much more likely to have informal sponsor-like relationships, Hewlett noted. "Women, on the other hand, have a tendency to relate to people who act just like them; it's more comfortable.”

One reason: Women are less concerned about performance, and more concerned with forming bonds with those who won't betray them.

But having sponsors can have a tremendous impact on women's careers, Hewlett said.  Sponsors impact pay, as women are more likely to ask for raises when appropriate if they have a sponsor. Sponsors also have a positive influence on retention and career progression.

Two tripwires keep women from fulfilling their career potential -- The Tiara Syndrome and executive presence, Hewlett said. Women often mistakenly believe if they just work harder than anyone else, a "tiara” will come down from the heavens and crown them as leaders.

Executive presence becomes an issue when women are struck off the "list” of potential leaders because they don’t look or act the part. The image women must project to be considered as having "executive presence” is very narrowly defined, otherwise they are considered "too passive,” "too bossy,” "too dowdy” or "too high-fashion.”

What’s more, women don't get feedback concerning the criteria for executive presence. Men are reluctant to provide this information for fear of backlash or consequences, stifling the conversation before it can even begin, Hewlett said. 

To move forward, women must "build their castle” and do a diagnostic, she said. Walt Disney, for example, knew what his vision was when creating Disneyland. Often, women are unclear of where they are heading. 

"With some sense of the role, job or position that will result in impact, power or money,” she said, "the journey is easier.”

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