Mentoring Missteps

Mentoring affects men and women differently, in both promotions and pay. HR leaders who wish to create more effective programs might be better served by focusing on "sponsorships" rather than mentoring. The difference? Sponsors are held accountable for the success of the persons they have taken under their wings.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011
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It's not what you know; it's who you know. Anyone with any lingering doubts about the validity of that expression in the corporate world just needs to look at the results of a recent study by Catalyst, a New York-based advocacy for women group.

The study finds that men with MBAs who are mentored get more promotions and higher pay than women with mentors because they hitch their stars to higher-ranked executives.


For years, women in business have been urged to find a mentor to provide career guidance, either informally or through formal company programs. In fact, some women have reported feeling "mentored to death with nothing tangible to show" from the association, according to the Catalyst report, Mentoring: Necessary But Insufficient for Advancement.

"Mentoring is important, but to make it to the top, someone needs to be pulling you up," says Christine Silva, Catalyst's Toronto-based director of research and an author of the study.

This is Catalyst's third published report from a longitudinal study of 4,143 high-potential MBA alumni who graduated between 1996 and 2007 from 26 top business schools. Twenty-six percent of the participants are women.

"The bigger question we're asking is why women are lagging from the first day. ... What we see is, really what matters is how highly placed [the mentors] are. That means they are in a position to provide more than advice, guidance and to show the ropes. Someone very senior can provide sponsorship," says Silva.


The problem for women is that men are far more likely to hook up with top-echelon mentors because, like them, they are male.


"Research shows that when left to their own devices, individuals choose to associate with others like themselves. Thus men are more likely to affiliate with other men and women with other women," states the report.


The literature has shown for years that people find it "awkward" to be advised by someone of the opposite gender, says Monica McGrath, an adjunct assistant professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "Senior executives don't initiate finding women. ... It's easier to just ask men [they] know." 


More men in the study (62 percent) than women (52 percent) had a mentor at the CEO or senior-executive level. The good news is that the sex of the sponsor doesn't matter -- just how high he or she is in the organization. The bad news is that even women with senior level support didn't get the same salary as men.


Men with mentors earned $9,260 more in their first job than women with mentors, and $6,726 more than men without a mentor. But women with mentors were paid only $661 more than women without a mentor. After that, the men received more promotions and got higher salary increases per promotion: 21 percent versus 2 percent for women.

People tend to use mentor and sponsor interchangeably, Silva says. While a mentor can also be a sponsor, a sponsor takes an active role in advancing someone's career.

Companies should strengthen their mentoring programs by adding "elements of sponsorship, focusing on how to advance someone instead of [just] developing them," Silva says.

Silva suggests that companies create a talent-identification system that encourages high-level executives to sponsor the progress of high-potential employees.

"Rather than let individuals choose favorites, it's a way to identify top talent. Many organizations already have a talent-identification system in place. It's a matter of taking it to the next level," Silva says.

Women need to link up with sponsors earlier in their careers, says Kerrie Peraino, chief diversity officer for American Express in the greater New York area.

"Across all levels, only about one in five women will claim a sponsor and only one in eight claim more than one. When I talk with women about the sponsor effect, they understand the concept and how important it is, but they often haven't got around to getting one or two for themselves," Peraino says.


Women's stagnation on the corporate ladder is an urgent matter, according to Catalyst, which has also just released two annual 2010 Census Reports of Fortune 500 women executives that show no significant increases for women at the top. The number of women holding board seats went up only .5 in one year, to 15.7 percent. Women in executive officer positions went up .9 percent to 14.4 percent, while more than 10 percent of boards had no women directors.


Mentoring is too often "another program of the week," says McGrath. Sometimes the relationship works, but most of the time the two participants "don't click."

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New York-based KPMG has created a diversity-oriented program that identifies "high potentials" among employees who traditionally need a boost, including women, the disabled, and gays and lesbians. Senior leadership is engaged in sponsoring candidates and supporting their development for the top 200 roles in the firm.

"You have to focus on the groups you want to advance. ... There is a clear focus on women. We have the most senior members of the firm and national partners actually engaged in relationships with high potentials, to make sure they have the right exposure and sponsorship to achieve a [higher] level," says Kathy Hannan, KPMG's national managing partner for diversity and corporate responsibility.

"I do think there's definitely a difference between mentoring and sponsorship, and people tend to confuse the two. I believe goals are what create sponsors. ... Mentoring is important, but when someone is really accountable for helping development of the individual, it's where the rubber hits the road," she says.

The key to the success of a sponsorship program, agree experts, is holding sponsors accountable for the success of the persons they have taken under their wing -- and measuring that success.

"If [the sponsored employee] is not getting ahead, it puts the onus on [the sponsor]," Silva says. Besides, "sponsoring high performers can make you look good."


McGrath agrees. "Companies should expect seniors to mentor, and evaluate them if they don't. Reward them when they do. Make it public and explicit. ... Measure performance based on how [the employee] advances."

The Catalyst study is further evidence that more women are needed at the upper echelons of management, and that women need to build social networks early in their careers to create "critical mass," McGrath says.

Many companies still promote top executive women for "cosmetic" reasons, rather than as "a long-term strategy for increasing business results," she says. "I have a lot of optimism. I talk to women who have graduated with executive MBAs, who are dedicated to building bonds with women. This is definitely the spirit."

For example, this year, American Express hosted its first summit for top women managers to "increase engagement from our senior female talent and to put a spotlight on the importance of creating meaningful sponsorship relationships," Peraino says.

There are three key elements to a successful mentoring or sponsorship program, Peraino says. "You need engagement from the top and an executive team willing to lead by example; a clear goal and program that will be compelling to your employees; and communicate, communicate, communicate."

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