The power of sponsorship

Diana Ryall
Topics Gender
Diana Ryall Founder and Managing Director Xplore for Success

While some improvements have been made over the past decade, achieving equality and inclusion in Australian workplaces remains a significant challenge today for our leaders in business, politics, and other arenas.

Indeed, I have many stories from the frontline, having spent 20 years working in the IT industry where I experienced gender discrimination, exclusion from the ‘IT crowd’ (about 95% men), and unequal pay, to name a few.

Even in a leadership position – as MD of Apple Australia – when I actively sought female candidates to hire as systems engineers, sales representatives and technical support, search firm databases were largely populated by men, so very few female candidates were shortlisted for such roles.

My work in the gender equality space began in earnest in 2002 when I founded Xplore for Success. I looked at how women operated at work, and questioned why in Australia we experienced such difficulty in promoting women of talent into senior roles.

Research showed that women were achieving great results in terms of their education, yet this didn’t translate to higher numbers of women achieving senior leadership roles.

When Xplore first started, we began by analysing different leadership behaviour and styles that were more likely to be seen as ‘typical’ of women.

One of the questions that came up time and time again for me was, ‘Did women really need to operate as ‘quasi males’ to be successful in the workplace – effectively leaving themselves at the door – in order to be viewed and treated as equals?’ This is certainly something that I struggled with in my early years at Apple.

This led to a perception that women needed to operate as ‘male’ within the workplace and ‘female’ outside of the workplace and this challenged their authenticity and placed women under enormous stress. Women not feeling they could bring their ‘whole selves’ to work meant valuable perspectives brought by women to strategy, innovation, business management and decision-making were frequently lost.

Women were frequently encouraged to spend more time networking to build pathways to promotion. There was significant pressure on women to make new connections and to broaden their network by attending work-related functions and events, and it was thought that promotion would seamlessly follow. We found that while networking made women more visible in their workplaces, that visibility was not sufficient to guarantee greater women’s success.

A new focus on the challenge of women’s success saw an increased popularity in mentoring. If senior men (and women if they held senior positions) spent time mentoring women, it was believed this would achieve changes in the promotion rate.

Such mentoring seemed to happen intuitively for young men but much less so for young women. A number of men have commented to me that being seen in a one-to-one discussion with a young woman may lead to rumours, while when men were seen mentoring men, it was assumed that these young men were seeking higher positions and new opportunities. It is also true that unconscious bias often affected the level of career conversations senior men had with women.

In more recent years, the term ‘sponsorship’ has gained recognition in the workplace. Sponsorship has been shown to build a leader’s understanding of gender differences and encourage them to take a more proactive role in the progression of women in their organisation. A sponsor, unlike a mentor, takes responsibility to challenge the sponsee about their skills and experiences, opens doors to opportunities, and speaks up for the sponsee and their skills in the sponsee’s absence. 

Finding a sponsor is not an easy task, but it’s one worth pursuing. Unlike mentoring where you are simply asking for some time and an opportunity to share ideas, a sponsor needs to have the confidence in you and your skills to represent you when you are not there. Such a relationship takes time to build, and I suggest the following as a start:

  • Take the time to be clear on your career aspirations. Consider how you want to work, the career you want to achieve and how you will integrate your work and life.
  • Identify the leaders more senior than you, and who are well connected in your areas of interest. Ensure that the leaders you target are themselves well respected both within the organisation where you work and the broader industry segment.
  • Once you have identified those you would like as your sponsors, set up a short meeting with them. Tell them your aspirations, discuss their career evolution, and get a sense for how they might work with you to achieve your goals. It’s important you feel a mutual sense of respect and trust.
  • After the meeting, thank them for their time and articulate two or three areas in which the discussion helped you. Ask them for their honest feedback, how they see you and your position in the workplace, and your prospects and opportunities for progression. Some of the feedback may be confronting, but you cannot expect them to represent you if they feel you don’t have the ability to succeed in your plan. 

It may take up to six meetings before you are able to embed the value you bring to the organisation, for them to develop the confidence to become your career sponsor. Sponsorship is a very personal, one-on-one relationship, and will require your focus to build the trust and understanding to move forward.

Your success in gaining a sponsor can be measured through their willingness to:

  • Introduce you to others who will be able to offer opportunities for you to achieve your career goals.
  • Put you forward for key strategic projects that build your profile and skills.
  • Speak about you and your potential to others – your skills, the value you bring etc. – in your absence.

Sponsors are like gold. In fact, in 2015 I published the stories of 11 sponsors and their sponsees in a book called Unexpected Women and their sponsorship journeys, highlighting the many benefits of sponsorship to a woman’s career.

I have sponsored many women throughout the course of my career. It has been immensely rewarding to be able to introduce these women to senior leaders in organisations where they may be seeking opportunities and to other senior women who may open ‘doors of opportunity’ for them.  I have enjoyed time with them to develop plans to ensure that every action is taken towards the realisation of their goals and aspirations.

My 6 tips for sponsorship success:

  1. Prioritise the development of a sponsor relationship – it needs focus.
  2. Be able to clearly articulate your career aspirations.
  3. Find a senior leader who is well connected and respected.
  4. Ask for authentic feedback and be prepared to take it on board.
  5. Ensure you thank your sponsor after each meeting and summarise the value you got from the meeting.
  6. Ask for suggestions, introductions and career progression support.


About Diana Ryall AM, Managing Director, Xplore for Success

Diana Ryall is a leading voice and advocate for gender equality in Australia, founding Xplore for Success, a consultancy specialising in this area since 2002. Prior to this, she was MD of Apple Australia and an inaugural member and Vice President of Chief Executive Women. In 2010 Diana became a Member of the Order of Australia. She is an active philanthropist, and Ambassador for Good Return and Dress for Success.

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