Sponsorship: Beyond Platitudes

August 17, 2011To mark the launch of Sponsoring Women to Success, I invited lead author, Heather Foust-Cummings, to discuss its key findings. In the coming weeks, we’ll also hear from Heather’s co-authors, Jennifer Kohler and Sarah Dinolfo. In today’s guest post, Heather cuts through the jargon and describes how sponsorship offers a unique “win/win/win” opportunity that benefits protégés, sponsors, and organizations. —Ilene H. Lang


Sponsorship can be a squirrely concept, leaving many of us sensing U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s dilemma when he issued his 1964 opinion on pornography in Jacobellis v. Ohio: we may not be able to define it precisely, but we know it when we see it.

Catalyst’s latest research on sponsorship, Sponsoring Women to Success, tackles this ambiguity head-on and puts the clichés on the sidelines. We define sponsorship in clear terms: it is active support by someone with significant influence on decision-making processes or structures who advocates, protects, and fights for the career advancement of an individual.

Through in-depth interviews conducted with nearly 100 executives and high-potential leaders across the globe, we learned first and foremost that sponsorship represents a unique “triple-win.” Sponsorship benefits the protégé, the sponsor, and the organization.

High-potential protégés gain career advancement. This is especially important for women, who are often overlooked for plum assignments and big promotions.

Sponsors benefit, too. In our study, sponsors reported that they received access to information at different levels of the organization that enabled them to better understand the business and become more effective leaders. Leaders who play sponsorship roles also learned that talent in their organizations needs to be more diverse to support business growth. Beyond that, sponsors reported that they gained a deep sense of personal and professional satisfaction from helping others to become more successful.

Sponsorship also boasts direct and indirect benefits for organizations, producing more committed leaders. According to the leaders in our study, having a sponsor made them want to “pay it forward,” and increased their job satisfaction and intent to stay.

Likewise, sponsors argued that sponsorship was critical to team-building. As one woman told us, “I would argue that our most successful partners…are the people who are sponsors. And the reason it’s so is because it’s a reciprocal relationship. I would run through a brick wall for [my sponsor] because of what he does for me.”

Okay, one cliché—but you get the idea. Sponsorship is not just for protégés. In an effective sponsorship relationship, everyone wins.


Heather Foust-Cummings, Ph.D., leads research projects on women in leadership and organizational change and effectiveness for Catalyst. Her current work examines the role of sponsors in influencing the advancement and retention of senior-level women. Prior to joining Catalyst, Dr. Foust-Cummings taught at Columbia University and Barnard College, and also conducted brand analyses for the Corporate Research Department at Young & Rubicam. She earned her M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science (American Politics) as well as a Certificate in Women's Studies from Emory University in Atlanta. She received a dual B.S. in Political Science and Secondary Education (Social Sciences) from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.