Women are over-mentored and under-sponsored says CEO Olive Darragh (BCom 1985). Here she explains why all of us should embrace the power of sponsorship.

Olive Darragh
Olive Darragh, BCom 1985

As I chatted with students about the power of sponsorship at the MBA Women in Leadership trek earlier this year, I couldn’t help but think about an article I read back in 2010. In this Harvard Business Review article, ‘Why men still get more promotions than women’, the authors noted the critical differences between mentoring and sponsoring and how important it is to a successful career.

More importantly, I see that difference in action when I learn about promotions among my former colleagues and peers. For all of them who I know well, I can identify at least one sponsor; someone who has fought to get them a promotion, given them that next developmental assignment and made sure they are part of important, visible projects. I too have benefited from a sponsor, over the past 25 years, who has helped accelerate my career in multiple ways.

Most organisations have mentorship programmes, but many have made that transition to sponsorship programmes. In the latter, they define the goals of sponsorship and hold sponsors accountable for whether the person they are sponsoring gets promoted. These programmes are a critical part of levelling the playing field for women and minorities, as their rates of elevation to the C suite remain stubbornly low. Sponsorship programmes are a ‘win-win’ for the organisation and its high potential leaders; everyone wins when great, diverse talent gets promoted and stays within the company.

Research over the last ten years shows women need sponsorship more than men, yet women often ‘settle’ for mentorship. Also, because so many senior leaders are men, sponsorship doesn’t happen as naturally for women. Don’t settle! Determine what it is you need to do to move your career in the direction you want to go. Define your own goals and find a sponsor who can help you achieve them.

That sponsor could already be a mentor or someone you are exposed to within your organisation whom you need to get to know. My favourite recent example of that is a friend at a search firm who has had a very successful career. Yet in her firm’s newly established sponsorship programme, she told her sponsor that her goal for the next year was to be the largest revenue generator in the firm. She and her sponsor worked out a detailed plan for what needed to happen for her to achieve that and she’s well on her way. A great example of a ‘win-win’.

If you are in position to be a sponsor, then have that conversation. Sit down with high-potential future leaders within your company and come up with a promotion plan. Articulate what each of you need to do to make that happen. Encourage your senior colleagues to participate. Broad-based engagement in sponsorship programmes helps everyone move past the concept of ‘favouritism’ to the concept of mutual development and success for all talented professionals.

Being a mentor is rewarding; being a sponsor is harder but even more rewarding. Having a sponsor is necessary. Firms of all size and type will benefit from embracing the power of sponsorship.

Olive Darragh, BCom 1985


Gillian Chiasson

Gillian Chiasson (MBA 2018) attended the MBA Women in Leadership trek in May 2018, where alumna Olive Darragh was the keynote speaker. Here, Gillian tells us what she learned.

The MBA Women in Leadership trek allowed us to spend two days engaging with inspirational female leaders and was a highpoint of my overall MBA experience. Olive Darragh was a fantastic alumna guest who served as our keynote speaker, covering the topic of sponsorship. As a young professional still early in my career, I appreciated the insights that she shared.

My biggest takeaway was that sponsorship relationships are based on action. While sponsors are expected to help those they are sponsoring move forward in their careers, sponsees have a responsibility to perform exceptionally and rise to the challenges placed before them. They should know what they want and be confident in pursuing their goals.

This discussion not only highlighted the importance of sponsorship in the workplace, but gave participants tangible takeaways that would shape us into better sponsees in the near future and prepare us to become sponsors as our careers progress. I look forward to re-entering the workforce post- MBA to put the tools developed during the trek and the rest of the programme to good use.

Gillian Chiasson, MBA 2018

Support the Student Experience

Olive is just one of many alumni who contribute to the student experience. If you are interested in sharing your insights with current students, then get in touch by emailing us.

Contact the Alumni Team