Executive sponsorship is by far the most effective intervention a company can make to advance Black talent, but only 5% of up-and-coming Black employees succeed in winning sponsorship. Black managers cannot look to senior Black colleagues for sponsorship, and white executives don’t tend to advocate for them either. Creating more access to sponsorship is not going to happen organically. Significant progress depends on companies giving urgent priority to well-financed interventions that create access to senior level advocacy for Black managers and executives.
The power of sponsorship to transform careers is now well known. When a protégé delivers performance and trustworthiness and a sponsor delivers capital and clout, this highly reciprocal relationship turbocharges the careers of both. Indeed, both finding a sponsor and being a sponsor are key to get from the middle to the top of any organization. Across talent cohorts, male managers who win sponsorship are 23% more likely to progress to the next rung of the career ladder than peers who do not have sponsors. (The figure for women is 19%.) Managers and executives who proactively sponsor high-achieving junior talent are 53% more likely to advance to the next rung of the leadership ladder than peers who fail to sponsor.
Black employees receive a particularly large boost from sponsorship. The data tell us that a Black manager is 65% more likely to progress to the next rung in the ladder if they have a sponsor. Sponsorship also has a dramatic effect on retention. When Black employees are sponsored, they are 60% less likely to quit within a year than peers who are not sponsored. Given these powerful progression and retention effects, it’s not surprising that recent research out of Data Hub shows executive sponsorship is by far the most effective intervention a company can make to advance Black talent.
In fact, in interviews we conducted across a range of companies (finance, fashion, tech, and gaming), up-and-coming Black talent talked about how sponsors had “opened doors to worlds they couldn’t reach on their own,” spoken up for them “in rooms where they were not present,” and had their back so that they could “reach for risky goals without fear of being fired.” They also described how their sponsor guarded them against the microaggressions that Black professionals face in their everyday work experience.
For instance, Alisha Austin, an employee at a Wall Street firm, had just won a big promotion and was taking her seat at a managing directors meeting when the meeting chairman barked at her, “Alisha, I need you to take the minutes.” Alisha’s sponsor, John O’Connor, responded instantly: “Let’s get someone in here to take the minutes because Alisha’s not doing it. She’s going to be contributing to this meeting.” “I was so appreciative of John’s action that day,” Alisha told us. “The fact that he jumped right in was huge. He’s a big part of the reason why I’ve stuck with this firm.”
While this data is encouraging, there’s a catch: Only 5% of up-and-coming Black employees succeed in winning sponsorship compared to 20% of their white peers. Why? Black managers cannot look to senior Black colleagues for sponsorship, and white executive don’t tend to advocate for them either.
Black executives are few and far between — a mere 3% of corporate executives. Partly because of this scarcity, these executives stand out and tend to come under heavy scrutiny. As a result they are 26% less likely to commit to being a sponsor than white executives. In the words of a Black leader at Cisco we interviewed, “I’m comfortable with mentoring, but I don’t have either the ammunition or the armor to get in deep and proactively sponsor.”
Black executives are particularly hesitant to throw the weight of their sponsorship behind another Black person. More than one third say they never sponsor a junior talent who looks like them — and it’s not because they don’t want to. In interviews they describe their painful quandary: a fervent desire to pay their gains forward and vigorously champion young Black talent clashes with very real risks to their own careers if they go to bat for another Black man or woman. In one interview, Jameela (name has been changed) described her predicament to us:
I was just a year into an executive position at a top-tier luxury goods company and beginning to hit my stride when a young Black woman asked me to sponsor her. It’s hard for me to admit, but I balked. I know and like the woman who approached me. She’s a hard worker and a high performer. But while valued by the company she is not a shoo-in for promotion. She’s been passed over for promotion once before and is known as “very, very vocal.” I worried that I did not have enough clout at the company to get her over the line. And even more importantly, I worried that even attempting to do so would get me into trouble.
If I backed her and she failed to win promotion, it would reflect badly on me. I’d no longer be seen as an executive to watch — a powerhouse of the future. If I backed her and she succeeded, my reputation would also suffer. My sponsorship of her would be seen as favoritism… Colleagues would whisper to one another that I was only sponsoring this particular young talent because she was a Black sister.
This thought really troubled me. I’m a person who’s racked up an impressive track record over 20 years, and I want to be known first and foremost as a great performer, not as a person carrying a torch.
Jameela is not alone. Versions of her painful predicament echoed through our interviews.
Looking to white executives for sponsorship is just as frustrating. This is in part due to segregation of social networks in America: 91% of white managers have no Black, Asian, or Latinx people in their immediate social network.
Consider the example of Bradford Johnson, a Black software engineer. Eighteen months into a dream job at a start-up in Silicon Valley, Bradford feels he’s losing traction. Despite putting his hand up for every opportunity that’s come his way, he’s never been picked for a client-facing assignment. During the time he’s been at the company, he’s worked on just three projects, all internal and low prestige, and he struggles to find a senior-level advocate who might open up higher-value opportunities. “The big shots at the firm already have their white-boy posse, buddies they went to Cal Tech with, go running with and play poker with Friday nights. They’re not about to take a chance on sponsoring someone they don’t know or trust. A Black guy from Houston is just too much of a stretch,” he told us.
The situation is dire. Quit rates among Black professionals have become punishing, both for individuals and for companies who have invested heavily in a diverse talent pipeline. A recent survey by Recruiting News Network finds that fully 49% of Black adults of working age are planning to look for a new job this year, compared to 34% of white adults. In our interviews, we’ve found a disproportionate number of Black employees cited the struggle to connect with senior colleagues, and, as a result, failing to find a sponsor, as a factor in their decision to leave their jobs.
How can we create more access to sponsorship for high-performing Black employees? This is not going to happen organically, at least not at any scale. A number of enlightened individuals have and will step up to the plate, but as we have seen, there are a ton of structural and cultural barriers that stand in their way. Significant progress depends on companies giving urgent priority to well-financed interventions that create access to senior-level advocacy for Black managers and executives.
Over the last 18 months, companies as different as JPMorgan, Splunk, DraftKings, Norton Rose Fulbright, Fox News, and Cisco have committed to — or recommitted to — formal sponsorship initiatives that target high-performing Black talent. These initiatives share common threads:
- They are positioning the retention and progression of Black talent as a strategic imperative, adding value to the company’s brand and feeding into the company’s growth objectives, particularly in global marketplaces.
- They are led by the CEO and tap into the energies of the top of the house, involving a company’s most senior executives as sponsors.
- They are providing customized executive coaching for both sponsors and protégés. There’s a recognition that oftentimes the tools and tactics of inclusion and building trust need to be taught.
- They’re taking great pains to position these initiatives as both transparent and accessible. Criteria for selection are grounded in performance measures and the actual sponsorship programs, which lasts between nine to 12 months, are positioned as a “rolling opportunity.” If a young high achiever doesn’t get in this year, they have a real shot of getting in next year.
Let’s hope these initiatives spread to other companies and create real traction, enabling a critical mass of Black professionals to stay in the corporate world and progress to executive ranks and the C-suite. There’s a lot at stake: Black professionals around the world have enormous market clout, and companies will only capture this growth opportunity if they provide executive sponsorship for their Black talent. The fact is sponsorship is the “hand-to-hand combat” of progression and inclusion.
Credit byHarvard Business Review