This article was originally published by ForbesWoman on February 5, 2020.
I remember the first time I truly felt I had a sponsor in the workplace. I had been in the workforce for 14 years, and I had been thinking for some time about my career and professional development.
There was an opportunity to apply for a once-in-a-lifetime experience that would propel my career and provide the education and coaching I would need as a rising executive in healthcare. The American College of Healthcare Executives Thomas C. Dolan Executive Diversity Program is one of the most competitive and prestigious career development programs of its kind.
Like many executive development programs, the application required the most senior-level executive in the organization to support participation in the 12-month program to include time away from the office for in-person coursework and events. In my case, it required approval from my CEO, who had only been in his role for about a year.
I believed that I would be a strong candidate for the program based on the strength of my portfolio of accomplishments, but I agonized over how to approach getting the sponsorship I needed to apply. Like my CEO, I had only been in my role for a short time. I had spent the last 18 months developing relationships and proving my abilities and skills. However, asking for sponsorship would be a true test of how well I nurtured those relationships.
I had previously scheduled a lunch meeting with our Chief Strategy Officer to talk about several recent projects I worked on and determine that this was a great opportunity to make the ask. We exchanged hugs, ordered our salads, and discussed our organization’s strategic priorities. Once there was a break in the conversation, she paused and said: “So, what can I help YOU with?”
I could feel my pulse quickening as I mustered up the words to describe the program and ask if she would be willing to bring this opportunity to the CEO and get his blessing. To my delight and surprise, she said “Absolutely!” I left that lunch feeling as if I had achieved the impossible, but I was equally confused. I did not believe that gaining access to sponsorship was a simple as inviting a potential sponsor out to lunch.
Months later, I ran into her again before an executive meeting and asked her why she said yes. Quite simply, she talked about how she heard about my work from other leaders and how impressed she was with my contributions. Other leaders spoke about the quality of my work and their strong belief in me as a leader. It was through this collective sponsorship that I was able to complete the program, get promoted, and be an advocate for sponsors at work.
Hospital C-suites and boards struggle with increasing diversity and representing our communities from gender and race perspectives. In a recent study by the American Hospital Association’s Institute for Diversity and Health Equity, only 14% of hospital board members and 9% of CEOs are minorities.
Part of the issue is that people of color tend to be over-mentored and under-sponsored. Having a sponsor at work can be transformational in your career, especially for women of color like myself. Research from the Center for Talent Innovation indicates that professionals of color with a sponsor were 57% less likely to have plans to quit their job within a year in comparison to professionals of color without a sponsor.
However, issues continue to exist with access to sponsorship. McKinsey and LeanIn.org’s 2019 Women in the Workplace study states that black women and women with disabilities face more barriers to advancement, get less support from managers, and receive less sponsorship than other groups of women. In talks within my sister circles and with peers from underrepresented groups, many have shared struggles in successfully finding and securing a sponsor.
As an executive in healthcare, I want to do my part in changing this paradigm. I believe it is my fundamental responsibility to advocate for women of color to gain the same access to sponsors as white women and men, and I wholeheartedly believe that there are other executives like me and allies that are willing to do the same. My big, hairy, audacious goal is to sponsor 100 women of color in healthcare by 2030.
When I say sponsor, I mean advancing the careers of the women I sponsor. This includes nominating women of color for industry awards to gain visibility, serving as an advocate for the next executive role to strengthen the talent pipeline, and celebrating the achievements of women of color in public and in private. It means utilizing my network to make warm introductions to women of color that are making an impact in healthcare. Sponsorship means taking action and holding myself accountable for the results. I am publicizing this goal for two reasons:
- I want my peers to keep me honest and serve as accountability partners.
- I hope to inspire other healthcare executives to take this pledge with me.
I believe that advancing women of color is not a pipeline issue, but a sponsorship issue. It is an equity issue. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, black women will not receive full pay equity compared to white men until 2130 at the current pace. It takes bold leadership combined with grit to do our part and change these outcomes.If you are willing to take this pledge or a version of it, follow these simple actions:
- Become an inclusive leader and educate yourself about the lived experiences of women of color in the workplace.
- Challenge yourself and check your biases, both conscious and unconscious.
- Share your stories of sponsoring women of color on social media using #100×2030.
- Take a personal pledge to sponsor women of color and post on social media (Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram).
The time is now, and we have much work to accomplish, but the future is bright for women of color in healthcare. Let’s change the dialogue and accelerate diverse leadership through active sponsorship.