FacebookFacebook icon TwitterTwitter icon LinkedInLinkedIn icon Email

Audio articles

Designing leadership programs for women that really work

Published 27 December 2021 in Audio articles • 7 min read • Audio availableAudio available

Powerful sponsors with specialist training and a deep commitment are needed to help propel women into senior roles. 

For decades, executives have come away from women-only leadership programs empowered to “lean in”, lead and negotiate. But despite the personal learning and heightened motivation that a top-notch leadership program can catalyze, actual results as measured by women’s advancement into senior ranks have been meagre. This is because most training programs are designed to produce self-development (or at worst, to “fix” the women so they can be more like the men) rather than to change the organizational network in which decisions that propel careers forward are made.  

Research shows that the reason too few women are reaching the top of their organizations is that not enough of them are getting access to the mission critical assignments and P&L roles that are stepping stones to senior roles. Often this is due to women not having powerful sponsors who advocate, demand and ensure that they get these critical assignments. If leadership programs are to help women advance, they must be designed in ways that improve the capacity of participants to identify and work with sponsors who understand that their role is to help them get access to mission critical assignments. 

What is sponsorship, why does it matter for women’s advancement, why has it proved so elusive, and how do we design developmental experiences that maximize career opportunities for women?

The sponsorship effect  

Getting assigned to the mission-critical jobs and assignments that lead to the top requires more than skills and drive. It requires a special kind of relationship, called sponsorship, in which mentors go beyond giving feedback and advice and use their influence with other senior executives to advocate for the mentees’ promotion and to ensure that they have exposure and visibility with other top decision makers.

Sponsoring relationships are especially vital to women’s career advancement. They help mitigate the three primary barriers that they face in moving up: access to key roles, access to a network of senior gatekeepers, and biased perceptions about their potential. A McKinsey study found, for example, that it isn’t having more mentors that leads to women’s advancement; it’s having senior mentors who are in a position to provide sponsorship.  Although both women and men viewed sponsorship by senior leaders as essential for success, women reported having fewer substantive interactions with senior leaders than did their male counterparts; a gap that widens as women and men advance. The women in the study were also less likely to say that a senior leader outside their direct management chain had helped them win a promotion or challenging new assignment.

Many companies have halted or failed to introduce formal efforts to increase sponsorship for a simple reason: one cannot mandate that executives spend their personal capital advocating for people they don’t know well. Some executives protest that sponsorship has become a way of doing “targets in disguise”. As a result, sponsorship often ends up being implemented as old wine in new bottles.

Over time, however, authentic sponsorship relationships can be cultivated in a process with clear expectations and guidelines for both parties. When a women’s leadership program is designed explicitly to foster this relationship not only are its advancement goals more likely to be achieved but the company also gets the benefit of training for the designated sponsors.

Designing for sponsorship 

Three actions are needed to support the development of strong relationships between participants in women’s leadership programs and senior executives:  

  1. Make designating and involving a sponsor an admission criteria and design principle for the leadership program. 
  2. Teach both participants and sponsors what’s involved and how to cultivate relationships that are more likely to blossom into true sponsorship over time. 
  3. Midway through the learning journey, check in with the women and their sponsors separately to discover what is working well and less well, so additional support can be offered to achieve their goals. 


Explicitly tie the leadership program to a sponsorship process 

After letting participants know that they will have to designate a sponsor in order to be admitted to the women’s leadership program, the next step is to guide them to identify and enlist the right person. According to research, the biggest predictor of sponsoring actually leading to positive career outcomes is the power and position of the sponsor. Therefore, participants should strive to choose someone who is present when key staffing decisions are made and has relationships with other influential executives.

Sponsors typically agree to support the participants for six months to a year, including a minimum of two career-focused conversations. They further agree to attend two virtual sessions with program faculty in which they learn what the role entails and how gender bias affects mentoring.

Teach participants and their sponsors how to move up the sponsorship spectrum 

In the classroom, women and their sponsors are taught to see sponsorship not as an all-or-nothing proposition but as a spectrum of helping behaviors; one that allows various levels of commitment as both parties get to know and trust each other. This more realistic approach, based on how real relationships develop, leads to better outcomes than having executives tick a box on a formal program without ever really becoming an advocate.

human value and leadership
“It’s not enough to teach women to develop the “right” skills, competencies and mindsets – and then send them back to an organization that still puts up the same barriers to advancement.”

Consider a spectrum of more private to more public career helping relationships  

  1. Classic mentor: provides personal advice and support privately, with no more at stake than the time invested.   
  2. Strategizer: shares insider knowledge about how to advance in the organization, outlining a strategy that will help fill in any developmental gaps that may be a barrier to advancement. 
  3. Connector: makes introductions to influential people in their network and “talks up” the sponsored employee with peers.  
  4. Opportunity giver: offers the sponsored employee high visibility projects or roles (for example, giving a key presentation or running an important meeting). 
  5. Classic advocate: the sponsor advocates publicly for an individual, typically in a succession contest for a significant role, with his or her reputation at stake.

This spectrum is used to teach women about what kinds of help they need to ask for and obtain in a series of “career crucial” conversations with their sponsors. Understanding the differences in kinds of help allows them to better strategize how to see and seize opportunities to nudge the relationship up the spectrum over time.

In addition, the spectrum is used to teach sponsors about what roles they could and should be playing. They are guided to take stock of where they are on the sponsorship spectrum at the outset. Unless they know the woman well, they are likely to find themselves at one of the lower points on the spectrum. That is a fine place to begin, but it is not yet adding the value of fully fledged sponsorship. After identifying what they are prepared to give, and addressing any concerns and questions, they are urged to consider each time they meet the women they are sponsoring: what would it take for me to move up on notch on the spectrum?

Get feedback on how it’s going and iterate 

Finding ways to capture the experience and questions that arise for both sponsors and sponsored as they get to know each other is also vital. For example, as a part of an executive education program in which I (Herminia) provide training for both groups, it became clear that sponsors tended to get stuck in the middle range of the spectrum, comfortable having strategic conversations and making network connections for their protégés, but not with providing high-visibility opportunities or advocacy.

When asked what would take for them feel comfortable moving up a notch, several said they wanted to see participants express more confidence. This led to a rich discussion about whether confidence should be earned or given, and about how evaluators mistakenly used expressions of confidence as a proxy for competence, particularly when assessing women, a discussion that was built into the next iteration of the training.

If the goal is to get more women into the senior ranks, it’s not enough to teach women to develop the “right” skills, competencies and mindsets – and then send them back to an organization that still puts up the same barriers to advancement. Career advancement does not unfold in a social vacuum; rather it is a process of getting access to increasingly challenging and mission critical opportunities, while at the same time getting greater support, recognition and encouragement from key gatekeepers. If women are systematically less likely than men to receive these opportunities and support, no leadership training program can fill the gap. However, leadership education can be explicitly designed to increase the likelihood that what happens after the program will actually fulfill the promise made in sending them there in the first place.


Herminia Ibarra

Herminia Ibarra is the Charles Handy Professor of Organizational Behavior at London Business School. Prior to joining LBS, she served on the INSEAD and Harvard Business School faculties. She is the author of two best-selling books, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader and Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career.

Kathleen O’Connor

Kathleen O’Connor is Clinical Professor of Organizational Behavior and Director of Executive Education at London Business School.


Learn Brain Circuits

Join us for daily exercises focusing on issues from team building to developing an actionable sustainability plan to personal development. Go on - they only take five minutes.
Read more 

Explore Leadership

What makes a great leader? Do you need charisma? How do you inspire your team? Our experts offer actionable insights through first-person narratives, behind-the-scenes interviews and The Help Desk.
Read more

Join Membership

Log in here to join in the conversation with the I by IMD community. Your subscription grants you access to the quarterly magazine plus daily articles, videos, podcasts and learning exercises.
Sign up

You have 4 of 5 articles left to read.