Smart biz leaders have protégés

A Fortune 100 CEO said something to me recently that made it clear just how important protégés are to someone in a position of power. When choosing his direct reports, this CEO always asks: “How many blazing talents have you developed over the years and put in top positions across the company, so that if I asked you to pull off a deal that involved liaising across seven geographies and five functions, you’d have the bench strength – the people who ‘owe you one’ – to get it done?”

In earlier research, the Center for Talent Innovation measured the “sponsor effect,” or the quantifiable boost to pay, promotion, career satisfaction and retention that sponsorship endows on protégés. It turns out that there’s also a “protégé effect” that can enhance the careers of leaders. White male leaders with a posse of protégés are 11% more satisfied with their own rate of advancement than leaders who haven’t invested in the younger generation. Leaders of color who have developed young talent are overall 24% more satisfied with their career progress than those who haven’t built a similar support base.

Although the roles of sponsors and mentors are often conflated, the fact is that sponsors do much more than mentors. CTI’s research reveals that sponsorship isn’t just a nice gesture; it’s also a smart career move.

Think of a sponsor as a talent scout. He’ll get his protégé in front of directors to audition for a key role. He’ll nudge them to choose her. He’ll coach her on her performance so that she proves to others what an excellent choice he made. He’ll train a spotlight on her so that other directors take note of her abilities, and he’ll make introductions afterward so that she can follow up with them to bring her talents to a wider audience. Should she stumble, or should any of those other directors turn hostile, the sponsor will come to her aid – because once their two brands are linked, it’s in the sponsor’s best interests to ensure that his protégé succeeds.

In short, sponsorship is about taking calculated risks. Why do it? Because the payoff is priceless.

In today’s complex organizational matrix, one person can’t maintain both breadth and depth of knowledge across fields and functions. But she can put together a posse whose expertise is a quick instant message away. Some “sponsees” add value through their technical expertise or social media savvy. Others contribute fluency in another language or culture. Still others may help you advance the organization’s goals through their ability to build teams from scratch and coach raw talent. Building a loyal cadre of effective performers can extend your reach, realize your vision, build your legacy and burnish your reputation.

But protégés can do more than enhance your brand and extend your influence; they can also protect you. As leaders move up the ladder, they’re increasingly removed from the action on the front lines of the organization. They need loyal lieutenants to bridge the distance and deliver a clear, unbiased and timely report of what’s going on.

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One protégée described herself as “the eyes and ears on the ground” for her sponsor. “I’d tell her that there was someone on her team who wasn’t performing the way they should. It wasn’t in an insidious, tattletale vein but from the vantage point of what would be helpful for the department. If we’re to deliver against certain strategic objectives and someone is displaying behaviors that aren’t helpful, then you’re serving the organization as well as your sponsor by informing about that behavior.”

And let’s not forget, too, that the higher you climb, the more exposed are. The more protégés you gather around yourself, the stronger and wider your safety net will be. In today’s rapidly changing business environment, protégés who prosper under your sponsorship and move up can repay the favor by doing for you exactly what you once did for them.

(Sylvia Ann Hewlett is president of the Center for Talent Innovation and Sylvia Ann Hewlett Associates. She is the author of 12 books, including the forthcoming “Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor.”)

© 2013 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.

Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate