27 September 2023

Forget mentoring: Why championing is essential for women’s leadership

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Dr. Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj* discusses the difference between mentoring and championing and why the latter is essential for women in leadership.

In 2015 Kitty Chisholm and I wrote our book ‘Championing Women Leaders’ starting with a quote from Tennis Champion Billie Jean King; “We are not measured by the number of champions we create, but by the number of opportunities we create for others to be champions in life.”

This is especially relevant today as we find that more organizations are requesting information on Championing.

The trio of support for women’s careers centres around mentoring, championing (or sponsorship), and coaching.

Mentoring is the first step to providing resources for women to think about their career path, but mentoring is people talking to you.

As you develop your career aspirations, you need multiple people talking about you.

Isn’t Championing just sponsorship by another name? Well, the framework developed for championing is quite specific.

When we understand the mechanisms underlying this approach, the intervention becomes understandable for senior leaders and more accessible to being of value to women.

It’s time to revisit the CHAMP framework that underpins the Championing role and recognize its value to women – who we call ‘ones to watch’ (OTW) – aspiring for leadership roles today.

Culture – we know the importance of culture and how it trumps most strategic or business-related decisions.

But we need to understand the detail by digging deeper to discover how our environment is influential in shaping our mindsets and behaviours.

The workplace brings together numerous elements that shape culture; at a macro level, legislation, national culture, and even sectoral traits.

The mezzo-level conditions come into play within the organization, policies to support diversity and institutional values that are part of the organization’s DNA.

An easier way to consider culture is to differentiate between hard and soft wiring.

The hard-wiring system encompasses the documented policies developed, implemented, and aligned with legislation.

The influence of government is significant, where gender equality and family-friendly policies are enshrined in law.

Against the backdrop of formalized policies, the challenge emerges with soft wiring where managers’ attitudes towards female employees can be far more pernicious in restricting their career progression.

Managers’ attitudes are the most significant factor determining career progression for women.

The brain pays particular attention to others, especially those with status and authority.

Chisholm explains, “Trust is our most potent enabler; I trust my manager has my best interests for my career progression. Authority, transparency, and fairness underpin trust. We are not talking about creating an equal platform for everyone.

“Still, we are advocating for a more nuanced approach to justice. What is fair for a fifty-year-old female colleague may be quite different for a twenty-five-year-old male colleague.

“Providing equal opportunities is filled with positive intentions. Still, it’s a blunt tool because it assumes everyone has the same starting point and access to the same opportunities for career progression. We know time and time again this is far from the truth.”

Culture takes a long time to change, and micro-changes are often imperceptible.

Despite the extensive work to address biases and challenge stereotypes, it is often the off-the-cuff remarks or a comment made as a joke that reveals the attitudes impeding progress for women.

If you don’t trust your manager to support your best interests for your career, then who do you turn to? Champions need to be individuals positioned above your leader who can influence decisions and ensure your voice is represented with credibility.

When identifying a champion, ask yourself whether this individual has the authority to support your career progression.

Do they behave with fairness and transparency in their actions? Fundamentally the championing relationship is about trust and is only successful when this is the centre of the dynamic.

Hesitation – how often do you hear the line; I’d push for her (insert a name of your choice), but she doesn’t have the hunger or the risk appetite.

Like me, I suspect you have heard this many more times than you care to admit.

Let’s get specific about what we mean when we mention hesitation.

This isn’t about fear of risk or not wanting promotion roles.

It’s far more straightforward.

Ambiguity holds women back—ambiguity around how decisions are made or the specific nature of the position.

We know the impact of ambiguity from the well-known HP research that showed women being reluctant to apply for jobs unless they had all the criteria, compared to men, who only had to comply with 60 per cent of the requirements to apply for the positions.

In an HBR article, Tara Mohr explains why women don’t step up.

A fundamental takeaway is that women do not recognize that advocacy and reframing experience can overcome skills and qualifications gaps during the hiring process.

Once again, this is where a champion becomes an invaluable asset for women.

Champions often see OTW’s potential before individuals recognize it in themselves.

Having a senior leader who brings their breadth and depth of experience to reframe your skills and potential is powerful, allowing you to see your potential through the lens of others.

Of course, if we talk about hesitation, we need to acknowledge failure.

The fear of failure is real and far more widespread than most will admit.

Despite the constructive conversations around failing, for women in male-dominated sectors, the risk of failure is still seen as a barrier to stretch roles because they worry about holding the weight of responsibility for all women.

If they fail, they have let the side down.

There are practical ways to mitigate failure, building confidence in your abilities, not just by building expertise in your specialty but by taking on stretch roles that challenge you and force you out of your comfort zone.

As you build experience in taking on these stretch roles, you become aware of your capabilities to handle uncertainty, mitigate failure, and minimize the damaging effects of imposter syndrome.

Chisholm argues, “The importance of doing stuff that stretches you cannot be overstated. It is through stretching that you learn you can change that you realize that your actions can have a significant impact on your environment and that you can determine your trajectory.

“A belief that you can change your fundamental attributes, such as intelligence, and a growth mindset, is developed through learning and doing, trial and error, and reflective feedback. So is confidence.”

In his book, How Confidence Works, Ian Robertson, a neuroscientist and clinical psychologist, states that confidence is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

He maintains that confidence has two elements – a belief in self-efficacy, ‘I am more likely to succeed than fail’ (or If you think you can, you can), and a belief that certain acts have specific outcomes (for example, if I eat less, I will lose weight) – and that you need both elements to turn confidence into action.

For example, I need to believe that I can perform well as a leader and that good leadership benefits teams and organizations.

Clarify this statement.

Advocacy signals what happens when others are talking about you, discussing you in meetings where you don’t have access – yet.

Access to stretch roles, whether rotations, sabbaticals, or promotions, means having someone champion you in decision-making conversations.

In many cases, the role of the Champion is to highlight the potential of the OTW and introduce or reinforce their capabilities, track record, and potential to the decision-makers.

If a Champion has done their work, then they will have prepared the conversation to ensure they have the endorsement of other individuals in the meeting.

Most importantly, the Champion is well equipped with knowledge of your strengths, examples of your success, and what you will bring to the role that makes you the strongest candidate.

For a Champion to advocate, they need to know you well and, more importantly, trust your delivery.

This means ensuring your performance is consistent.

Being a superstar can be great for important projects, but consistency has greater value.

Remember you are asking a Champion to align their brand with you, which means they respect your reputation.

Motivation is further strengthened by advocacy.

Having a Champion means having a senior leader who believes in your potential and has the means to help you demonstrate that this belief is justified.

Someone with sufficient status and authority for you to respect them and is genuinely interested in your potential for your benefit.

This is more altruistic and aligned with leadership legacy rather than the highly transactional nature of sponsorship.

The value of Championing is having someone who says, ‘You can do this if you work hard enough and find the right strategies,’ not ‘You can do this is because you are so clever, in other words, someone who helps you develop a growth mindset through challenges that are just outside your current reach, but within your potential.

Chisholm states, “Acquiring a growth mindset strengthens the effects of championing: the belief that you can change yourself and have agency in shaping your outcomes and achievements.

“Confidence and a growth mindset are not the same, but together are powerful generators of motivation – the desire to act – physically and cognitively.”

Motivation leads to acting, to doing, to prove to yourself and others that you have an impact and can create change in a direction that you set.

According to Organizational psychologist and applied Neuroscientist Professor Paul Brown, our emotions drive motivation.

Championing can reduce that fear of failure that causes hesitancy by increasing the expectation of success through combining a growth mindset and confidence that comes with stretch roles.

It can also – and for the same reason-increase the desire for challenge, such as a jump into a senior leadership role.

Power – the final step in this framework, power, is evident across the different dimensions.

For the OTW, the power lies in confidence developed by recognizing your potential and expectations for career growth through someone else’s perspective.

As a Champion, this relationship provides the opportunity to diversify the leadership profile and strengthen their leadership legacy, often aligned with doing the right thing.

Many Champions attest to their growth as they step out of their comfort zone to better understand colleagues from diverse backgrounds.

Inevitably the successful outcome of Championing lies in strengthening the diversity of the leadership team, correlated with strong innovation and financial performance, creating a foundation for the organization to become more powerful in its delivery and preparing for the future.

We developed this framework based on global research in more than 50 countries and extensive experience delivering gender leadership programs to clients.

Over time new research has underpinned our thinking about Championing.

We now understand that Championing instils a growth mindset, creates opportunities to develop and strengthen confidence, raises expectations of success, and has value for the Champion, the OTW, and the organization.

Today more than ever, Championing is prevalent in an informal manner.

Its impact is much more significant when organizations have a critical mass of champions at a senior leadership level.

One Champion supporting OTW is exceptional for that individual.

Normalizing Championing strips away entitlement to ensure a wider pipeline of talent.

This means encouraging more organization-wide Championing, with opportunities for senior men and women to step up as Champions and for women to demand more than mentoring.

*Dr. Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj is an expert in diversity, high performance and leadership. She is an Associate Professor at HEC Paris Business School in Doha and works extensively with clients on leadership capabilities.

This article first appeared at forbes.com

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