Michelle Figueroa was not looking for a new job when an acquaintance recommended her for an executive position at NYC Health + Hospitals/Metropolitan.
For that matter, Figueroa wasn’t sure she was qualified for the opportunity. But because she trusted her connection, she applied—and was offered the role.
Figueroa, now chief operating officer at the hospital, said her contact’s willingness to sponsor her—to spend their social capital to help advance her career—encouraged her to “get out of her own way.”
Having a sponsor gave her confidence to take on new challenges while motivating her to live up to expectations, she said.
“What I’ve learned more than anything is I’m never quite ready for my next job; I grow into the job,” Figueroa said.
Both sponsorship and mentoring, which involves offering professional advice without personal advocacy, are critical for organizations looking to diversify their workplace. Several studies show that companies with a greater mix of gender, racial and ethnic representation are more profitable. When an underrepresented individual sits in a place of power, they are able to support others in turn.
“You need sponsorship because you have to make space … so you can bring people with you,” Figueroa said. “Until you get into those rooms, so that you can be the voice if there is no other voice, you have to keep making space.”
An effective sponsorship and mentoring strategy depends on the organization’s culture, said Opal Greenway, a principal at Stroudwater Associates.
“I had a sponsor who got me a seat on the board, but I still had to defend every single stance I took in that room because nobody else in the room was going to give me the benefit of the doubt,” Greenway said.
“I actually had to ask for continued sponsorship and be like, ‘I need you to back some of my ideas because I’m getting pushback and questions all the time.’ Just because my seat’s there doesn’t mean I’m going to be listened to. Finding that allyship is really important,” she said.
The sponsorship enabled Greenway to use data to advocate for Stroudwater to overhaul its hiring practices. The healthcare consultancy had tended to look in-network to fill new roles, but executives knew the company needed to diversify its workforce to attract a greater array of customers, Greenway said.
After Stroudwater implemented a requirement that the consultancy interview multiple outside candidates for every position, the company more than doubled its percentage of female workers to 65%, Greenway said.
Those interested in finding a sponsor or mentor should reflect on what they want out of their career as individuals—rather than focusing only on climbing the existing corporate ladder, said Mika Taylor, vice president of finance and Optum performance at John Muir Health in Walnut Creek, California. They should connect with someone who can assist with those goals, she said.
“What do you want, what are you looking for, where are you going?” Taylor said. “I get a lot of, ‘I don’t know,’ or they’re waiting for something to be handed to them. Just because you’ve been here for 12 years doesn’t mean you get the next title. What are you doing to get there?”