It Takes a Village to Make It to the C-Suite

Besore-It Takes a Village September 27, 2021 By: Celia T. Besore, FASAE, CAE

Advancing to a leadership position for anyone, including Latinos and other underrepresented communities, doesn’t happen overnight—or alone. Cultivating sponsors and mentors is a great way to chart a course for success.

The journey to executive leadership positions is rarely facilitated by going solo, and seldom follows a charted course, full of careful steps. That is why anyone aspiring to have a successful career needs mentors and sponsors.

While Hispanics make up 18 percent of the labor force, only about 11 percent are in management positions. And, according to the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility (HACR) Corporate Inclusion Index, Latinos hold just 4 percent of executive officer positions. In associations, Latino representation is also slim. For example, the ASAE Research Foundation’s Benchmarking in Association Management: 2018–2019 Policies and Procedures, Volume 2, reports that only 6.5 percent of association staff members self-identify as Latino/Hispanic. With the projected increase of Latinos as a proportion of all U.S. workforce, a dearth of Latino leaders is a serious concern.

Mentors and Sponsors

What can we do to increase the presence of Latinos and other underrepresented minorities in the C-Suite? Mentors and sponsors make a difference, and anyone aspiring to career success and advancement needs both. The role and importance of mentors is well-recognized, but the concept of sponsors is not as pervasive in organizations. Yet the lack of sponsors has been identified by The Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), now Coqual, as one of the reasons few minorities hold executive positions at Fortune 500 companies.

While mentors are typically role models who provide advice and support, a sponsor is someone who will move your career forward within an organization. A sponsor provides opportunities, contacts, and argues your case before others. As Heather Foust-Cummings, vice president at Catalyst Research Center for Equity in Business Leadership, says: “A mentor will talk with you, but a sponsor will talk about you.”

The study, Latinos at Work: Unleashing the Power of Culture, reports [PDF] that Latinos with sponsors are 42 percent more likely to be satisfied with their career progression. Yet, a mere 5 percent of full-time, high-earning Latino professionals in large companies have sponsors. And women and minorities in the workplace are 54 percent less likely than their male counterparts to have a sponsor.

Sponsorship, not mentorship, is the true route to success in the workplace.

Get a Sponsor

Business leaders look for protégés who will help them to achieve their own goals—someone with exceptional talents, high potential, focused drive, and above all, someone who is fiercely loyal. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor, offers three important tips for attracting a sponsor.

Build a reputation as a star performer. Exceed expectations and demonstrate that you are reliable, productive, and motivated.

Demonstrate that you are loyal and trustworthy. Your sponsor needs to be able to count on you to support their interests. According to Hewlett, managers value a loyal protégé more than they value someone who’s highly productive. 

Bring something special to the table. While mentorship is a personal relationship, sponsorship is a business relationship. You need to bring something extra—knowledge, skills, vision, cultural fluency—that can benefit the sponsor.

You can find sponsors either at the top management of your association or outside your organization. By volunteering to lead challenging projects, you will have a chance to demonstrate positive outcomes to your sponsors.

Are you looking to become a CEO in a few years? Connect in meaningful ways with other association CEOs who can refer you to recruiters or who might be able to recommend you to high-visibility projects at organizations where you can build your reputation and add to your skillset.

Are you already at the top? Consider sponsoring someone from an underrepresented community. Sponsors also benefit from the “protégé effect.” According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, white male leaders with protégés are 11 percent more satisfied with their career advancement than leaders with no protégés; in leaders of color, it is even higher with an overall rate of 30 percent.

Are you serious about your career? Find a sponsor! Making your way to the top will be easier and faster. Are you serious about making a difference in the number of Latinos and minorities in leadership positions? Become a sponsor! As a sponsor, you will not only help shine a light on new stars, but you will also benefit by showing your commitment to your organization and your ability to recognize talent.

Celia T. Besore, FASAE, CAE

Celia T. Besore, FASAE, CAE, is executive director of The Monitoring Association in McLean, Virginia.