Why sponsoring women is a win-win strategy

Socrates and Plato. Tiger and Earl Woods. Batman and Robin. There are many examples of great mentoring relationships, but most are male. For promising younger women who tend to be overlooked for mentoring opportunities, it’s time to go even further. We need not to mentor women, but to sponsor them, especially in healthcare.

What does it mean to sponsor someone? It is more effective and can be a longer-lasting relationship that a mentorship. Whereas mentors offer Yoda-like advice, sponsors advocate for an up-and-comer. Mentors talk at you, but sponsors talk you up. They open doors and make sure there are possibilities for advancement.

So, why do women in healthcare need sponsors right now? Because although women make up 78 percent of healthcare's workforce, there just aren't enough women breaking the C-suite glass ceiling.  Despite initial progress in recent years, women hold only 26 percent of hospital CEO positions and 21 percent of executive positions at Fortune 500 healthcare companies.

Make no mistake. Sponsorships are symbiotic relationships, with benefits for both the sponsor and the sponsored.  And while those who are sponsored get a potential path toward advancement, the sponsor has the opportunity to influence and professionally develop the next generation of organizational leaders properly. It’s a brilliant strategy to ensure the vision and values of a company culture continue.  In effect, sponsorships can be the ultimate succession planning.

What does it take to be a sponsor?  First, you need to examine your position in an organization. Effective sponsors need some social capital and credibility. If you are able to help prepare and influence someone else's career effectively, you can be a sponsor. You also need to have an ample dose of courage and confidence because you will need to stick your neck out for the individual you sponsor.

For the sponsored individual, there’s an obligation to work hard and perform. Not everyone gets a sponsor in life, and the opportunity comes with the expectation that you will listen, take note, and engage in the self-improvement encouraged by your sponsor. If you don’t take the relationship seriously, there are most likely plenty of others who will.

Not all sponsors need to be women. In fact, there are many examples of outstanding male sponsors who helped women advance in their field.  In my own life, I've had three sponsors, two of whom were men. They saw potential in me and helped prepare me for positions of greater responsibility, teaching me political and behavioral insights I could have never learned in school. They also went to bat for me when the timing was right and stayed with me as life-long career advisors long after I left their organizations.

For those interested in sponsorship, consider taking on more than one relationship for your organization, building a whole cohort of younger talent. With this strategy, the organization creates an all-important pipeline for up-and-comers. Those tapped for the pipeline spend time learning company culture and preparing to lead. With these types of programs, it's important to set expectations that promotion isn't immediate. Instead, there's a place further up the ladder if commitments and responsibilities are met.

Chances are that if you start a sponsorship program, you’ll begin to see the best and brightest gravitating toward your organization, especially if it’s clear that women-centered sponsorships are a priority.  It’s a concept whose time has come, and one that is definitely worth the long-term rewards.

Annette Walker serves as president of the City of Hope Orange County, driving the development and the growth of a robust caner network throughout the region, along with a state-of-the-art cancer center in Irvine, Calif. Prior to her position with City of Hope Orange County, she served as the president of strategy for Providence St. Joseph Health, the nation’s second-larger non-profit health care system.

She has a Master’s degree in Health Administration from the Minneapolis-based University of Minnesota and a Bachelor of Science degree from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. For additional information, visit www.cityofhope.org.

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