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Why You Need A Work 'Sponsor'


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're going to spend the next few minutes talking about the world of work. Later, we take a look at this week's Washington Post Magazine and we'll speak with a writer who says that the so-called millennial generation, especially the women, really are changing what work looks like.

And, speaking of change, over the past four years, we've talked a lot about what has and has not changed as a result of this nation's having its first African-American president. One thing that has not changed is that people of color are still underrepresented in the highest positions of power in corporate America.

A recent study sponsored by some of the country's biggest companies says, although minorities make up more than a third of the country's population, they hold only 13 percent of board seats at Fortune 500 companies and they hold only 20 of the chief executive officer positions at those companies.

But the study goes beyond naming the issue. It offers some intriguing theories about why this is and makes some recommendations about how to change it. The study is called "Vaulting the Color Bar: How Sponsorship Levers Multicultural Professionals Into Leadership."

We're joined now by one of the authors of this study. Sylvia Ann Hewlett is the founding president and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation. Also with us is Robert Rodriguez. He is the author of the book, "Latino Talent," and the president of Dr. Robert Rodriguez Advisors. He was named one of the top 100 most influential Latinos in the U.S. by Hispanic magazine and they are both with us now.

Thank you both for joining us.


SYLVIA ANN HEWLETT: It's good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: So, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, let's start with some of the findings of the study. One of the things I think the study says, that there's no ambition gap with multicultural employees. They're highly ambitious. In fact, large percentages of African-Americans, Asians and Hispanics want top level positions and say they're willing to do whatever it takes to get those positions.

HEWLETT: Absolutely.

MARTIN: But, despite high levels of ambition and aspiration, these people are underrepresented. I think we've established that, but what you also raise is the whole question of sponsorship. You say sponsorship is the key ingredient that is missing. Could you talk a little bit more about what sponsorship is and is that the same as mentorship or being mentored? Is there a difference?

HEWLETT: Well, that's the key question. We find that there's no difference between the performance or the credentials or the track record of the - you know, people of color and the Caucasians in the upper middle management level.

The difference is, you know, getting that senior slot, that very sought after senior slot, and Caucasian men are twice as likely to have this sponsor figure in their work lives, and a sponsor is a very senior level champion of the younger talent. And the things in which - you know, make you distinguish between a sponsor and an old-style mentor is that for starters - you know, the sponsor is this high level individual, whereas a mentor can be someone who is just a little older, a little wiser, willing to give you some advice.

So, absolutely, a sponsor needs to be someone who has a voice on decision-making tables. And, secondly, he or she has to be willing to take a bet on your behalf, to really take the time to get to know you and, you know, use up some political capital on your behalf because, you know, one reason why you might be held back is that you can't do those, you know, spectacular feats of accomplishment because you've got no senior person in your corner to cover you if you are to fail.

MARTIN: Let me jump in for just a minute, Sylvia Ann Hewlett.


MARTIN: One of the things that the study says is that people often pick their mentors, but a sponsor picks you.

HEWLETT: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And the study also makes the point that this, in fact, is more unusual for people of color, multicultural individuals, to have someone like that. You say that, for example, only 8 percent of people of color have a sponsor compared to...


MARTIN: ...13 percent of white people. Why is that?

HEWLETT: What we find is that, you know, sponsorship is something that you need to win, something you need to earn. You really need to be picked and groomed and tapped on the shoulder for a leadership slot, and Caucasian guys who tend to be the folks in power more readily choose someone from their own background, someone who looks and speaks like them. That is the safest choice. That's the default choice.

MARTIN: Robert Rodriguez, you know, you've done a deep dive into the whole question of Latino talent and have you observed this in your studies, that Latino leaders who tend to rise within corporations - have they tended to have had that kind of sponsorship?

RODRIGUEZ: We're starting to see it more often than we ever had in the past, and for me it's part of a new trend that I'm really encouraged to see. You know, I was in a position where last week I was working with an organization, ran into a young Latino working at a very prominent financial services organization who has a little bit of an accent because she was born outside of the U.S. and her managers had told her that - hey, you know what? Because of your accent, really don't know if we see you moving up. You know, we think that some folks may have some trouble with your credibility because of your accent.

Fortunately, this young lady has a sponsor at a very senior executive level and said, this whole accent thing is hogwash. I'm willing to advocate on her behalf and to risk that she is truly capable of moving up to that next level.

So we do see instances now more so than in the past where these sponsorships are occurring and they are making an impact.

MARTIN: One of the study findings says that people of color too often feel that they have to hide their true selves, a discomfort that breeds two-way distrust and distance, and a very large percentage of all of these groups feel that a person of color would never get a top position at my company. These are all people who were surveyed as part of the study.

I want to ask you about that, Robert Rodriguez. Does that all work together somehow, that people feel that they don't ever really fit in, which compromises their performance in some way or at least compromises how they're viewed?

RODRIGUEZ: It does. You know, whenever any individual, you know, feels like they can't bring their full self to work, they can't speak with an authentic voice, when they're told to leave - you know, leave your Latino-ness at home or don't do that African-American thing or, you know, why do you have to be that way? And - which is really surprising because, in many cases, we're hired because of our unique perspective, because of our diversity of thought. But yet, when we join organizations, we're often told to just compromise and fit in, if you will.

So, you know, when organizations do realize that they're creating an environment where folks can't feel like they're authentic, they can't bring their full selves to work, they're losing out on the full passion and energy of those employees.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about a new study that talks about, or tries to describe and understand why it is that multicultural individuals and women seem to be stalled at the middle management ranks or, rather, why so few are reaching the top ranks of corporate leadership.

Our guests are Sylvia Ann Hewlett. She's the co-author of the study. I'm also joined by Robert Rodriguez. He's the author of the book, "Latino Talent," and he works on helping people advance in corporate America.

So, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, I have to ask an uncomfortable question. One of the big surprises in the study is that African-American leaders surveyed say they hesitate to sponsor someone. Why would that be?

HEWLETT: This is the most, you know, distressing piece of data in the study, and we found that it wasn't just African-American. It was also Hispanic and Asian leaders. You know, if you make it to the top, although you feel you should be sponsoring younger talent of the same ethnicity and you are particularly concerned to kind of pay it forward, you actually don't. You hesitate.

And, when we explored that, both in our data and in our interviews, here are the reasons why: It is felt that, if you pick a protege of the same color or the same sex, you'll be seen as, you know, playing favorites. Besides which, if you, as one of the very few, say, African-American leaders, choose a African-American protege, the scrutiny will be immense because there are so few of you, everyone's looking to see if this person's going to screw up, etc., etc. And so, if this younger person were to fail, you could both go down.

MARTIN: What about women? Does the same thing work for women?

HEWLETT: The same thing.

MARTIN: Women...


MARTIN: ...tend not to sponsor other women?


MARTIN: So it seems to me that the message for sponsors is clear, which is expand your horizons. But what about for people who need a sponsor, would benefit from one?

HEWLETT: Well, you know, Michel, half of this study is devoted to what we call the roadmap of how a protege can win sponsorship because, quite frankly, about 70 percent of the investment in this relationship needs to be done by the younger person because they're the one who is going to benefit most from it.

For instance, first off, scan the horizon in your organization for potential sponsors - and we have a guideline as to who makes for a good sponsor. Needs to be two levels above you, needs to be someone that you can get in front of, and we have tactics in terms of how to get in front of that person and what you need to impress them about and what you need to deliver. And, again, really very tactical hands-on concrete advice in terms of what that looks like on the ground.

MARTIN: And it's not just sucking up?

HEWLETT: No, it's not. You have to perform on three fronts. It's performance, it's trustworthiness. I mean, liability. And, thirdly, it's this power of difference, delivering a value-added, which can be cultural smarts or a fabulous knowledge of china or quant skills or something. But what is about you that you can bring to the table that is your own kind of personal brand, that does not just replicate what is on the team already?

MARTIN: Robert Rodriguez, final thought from you?

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah. You know, just to echo those comments, you know, I think, for many, you know, women and minorities, we were raised to - you know what? You know, just work hard and, as long as you're smart, you'll advance. You'll move up. And I think that serves us well up to a certain point, but sooner or later, we get to a level where everybody else is smart and everybody else works hard. And exactly what Sylvia was mentioning earlier. That's where we need to be able to differentiate ourselves from all the other smart, hardworking people in the room, and it could be because of our cultural insights. It could be because of the diverse perspectives that we bring to the table that does make us distinctive and unique and makes it easier for someone to be our sponsor.

MARTIN: Robert Rodriguez is the author of "Latino Talent." He is the president of Dr. Robert Rodriguez Advisors. He was kind enough to join us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Also with us, Sylvia Ann Hewlett. She is the founding president and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation. She's one of the authors of a study called "Vaulting the Color Bar: How Sponsorship Levers Multicultural Professionals Into Leadership," and she was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

HEWLETT: Thank you.

RODRIGUEZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.