Past Event

Cultivating the “It” Factor: How to Put Sponsorship to Work for Women

Thursday, August 8, 2013
8:30 am - 12:00 pm

McKesson Corporation
2nd Floor, Solutions Center
1 Post Street
San Francisco

Panelists on the Cultivating the IT Factor, conferenceThe Gender Equality Principles' latest roundtable on executive presence and sponsorship, cosponsored by McKesson Corporation and the San Francisco Department on the Status of Women, was held on Thursday, August 8, 2013. A diverse group of over 60 men and women participated, representing such companies and organizations as Calvert Investments, Ernst & Young, Genentech, Gap Inc., Levi Strauss & Co., Morgan Stanley, Catalyst, MissRepresentation, Alliance 4 Girls, and more.

Expert panelists included: Noni Allwood, Vice President and Senior Fellow at the Center for Talent Innovation; Janice Little, Senior Director of Diversity at McKesson Corporation; Loretta Walker, Vice President of External Affairs at AT&T; and Antoine Andrews, Senior Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Gap Inc. The morning's panel was moderated by Aimee Allison, Media and Community Affairs Director at the Department on the Status of Women.

Kicking off the roundtable was Ms. Allwood, who stated that "research reveals that the top jobs often elude women and professionals of color because they are perceived as lacking executive presence. This 'presence' will be perceived as a sign that the individual has the necessary attributes for leadership, and may determine whether this person advances in his or her career...Women and professionals of color face great challenges as they are often unaware of the attributes of executive presence, underestimate its importance, or must navigate a very narrow window of compliance. And they're simply not getting the guidance they need to acquire it." She then presentedthe latest research on executive presence and sponsorship by the Center for Talent Innovation. She established that executive presence is being perceived as having leadership qualities and can be broken down into:

Noni Allwood, Center for Talent Innovation
Ms. Noni Allwood, Center for Talent Innovation
  • 67% gravitas (confidence, decisiveness, integrity, emotional intelligence, reputation, and vision)
  • 28% strong communicationskills (speaking, ability to command a room, and reading an audience)
  • 5% appearance, which countsas a filter through which your communication skills and gravitas become apparent


The panel fielded a question regarding whether it is appropriate for an employee to have a tattoo. They agreed that each company has its own culture and employees can learn what is acceptable by looking at what the leaders are wearing or doing.

The panel added that the trick is finding a balance between conforming to the expectations of the corporate world and remaining authentic. Ms. Little said that while it is possible to succeed without adjusting to the company's expectations, it requires hard work. She added that "to lead a revolution is hard and you get tired." Often at the beginning of a career, you will have to conform, but you will have more freedom as time passes: "You have to drink the Kool-Aid when you get there," she said, "But after being there for a while, you can choose the flavor."

Corporate Culture and Sponsorship Programs

Ms. Little then outlined one of McKesson's secrets to encouraging diversity and sponsorship: Leaders Teaching Leaders, a 9-month program that opens doors for high potential senior director/vice president level employees, enhances their leadership skills, and allows for direct engagement with the CEO or other C-Suite executives. Ms. Walker explained that AT&T's employee resource groups also provide an opportunity for networking, as leaders and employees of certain minority groups all gather in one space. The panelists all agreed that it is important that companies measure the success of their sponsorship programs. One way to do so is to ensure top executives are held accountable through performance evaluations for whether they are helping their protégés move up the ladder.

Ms. Little added that while formal sponsorship programs are important, informal sponsor relationships happen all the time. However, there can be some disadvantage for women and people of color if a company has only informal sponsorships. She explained that companies must first recognize the value of sponsorship, and formal programs should be inclusive of groups that are underrepresented in the executive ranks. She said that sponsorship is about establishing connections and building trust. Connecting with someone is easier when you have something in common, such as your children attend the same school or you attend the same church. Often less represented groups do not have these natural connections with their company's C-Suite, therefore, they are less likely to develop informal relationships that may lead to sponsorship. Formal programs can help mitigate these disadvantages.

Mr. Andrews added that finding a connection is a two-way street; it is also up to the individual to find points of connections that exist, even if she or he is different from a possible sponsor. He added that he has often heard of women hesitating to reach out to a male sponsor out of the fear of triggering rumors, but that it is important that gossip does not stop you from going after a sponsor. If someone doubts that you have a sponsor for an honest reason, Mr. Andrews suggested you tell them to "keep believing and watch [you] keep climbing."

Small Group Takeaways

After the panel, event participants split up into four small groups facilitated by Ray Arata, Co-Founder of GenderAllies, Ms. Little, Ms. Walker, and Mr. Andrews. One group talked about strategically making the case for sponsorship by establishing ground definitions and backing up the information with measurements and metrics. Others suggested that having a conversation about groups whose cultural defaults do not align with the expectations of the corporate world is the first step to making the workplace a fairer place. Finally, the groups agreed on the necessity of getting men involved in the conversation on how to create an innovative and equitable 21st century workplace.

For more research on executive presence and sponsorship, please visit the websites of our Gender Equality Council organizations:

  Center for Talent Innovation
  Catalyst Inc.

Additional resources:

  Sponsoring Women to Success (Catalyst) 
  What Women Need to Advance (Forbes)

View Ann Lehman's profile on LinkedIn


2018 Gender Equity Challenge Forum
April 18, 2018

Join leaders from business, government, and academia to turn discussion into action. Celebrate the companies that are innovating for equity. Learn about model practices to implement in your workplace.

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