Marissa Mayer, former CEO of Yahoo, is a prominent female leader in the technology industry. He started his career as the 21st employee of Google, and his career has risen along with the rise of Google. He is known for his user-focused approach to products, which was a key part of his success while leading Google Search and UX as vice president in 2006.
However, when he left to lead Yahoo as its CEO in 2012, his star began to fall, stemming in part from two main criticisms: his lack of interest in operations and finance, and his unemotional leadership style. “He doesn’t seem to have much human emotion,” SAYS a former colleague.
Having an “overly” analytical and unemotional leadership style is a complaint many women leaders and leaders from marginalized racial groups have had placed on them. Some were criticized for being “too emotional.” In general, these leaders often suffer from the Goldilocks dilemma: They are either too much of one thing or not enough of the same thing. They are too bossy or not assertive enough. They are too emotional or too cold. They are micromanagers or they don’t have enough interest in their employees.
This tightrope that these leaders, especially those from marginalized racial groups, must walk – also known as the double-bind – is manifested in ways that hinder their career advancement. For example, because female leaders have more limited characteristics that are considered acceptable (for example, they must be warm. and capable), they received more comments in their interpersonal skills in their performance evaluation than men. Evaluators may recognize that a woman is performing at a high level, but he was still rated as lacking in leadership potential. Combining gender with race or ethnicity further complicates the picture. For example, black women are not punished to the same degree as white women to behave dominantly, and East Asian American women more disliked than white American women when they behave aggressively. Finally, women and racial minorities are more likely to raise concerns about diversity, equity, and inclusion, but also under the quality of leadership to do so than men and white people.
Regardless of the precise underlying cause, the result is clear: Women and racial minority employees are more likely to be criticized for their interpersonal leadership.
When such criticisms are leveled, it is important for women leaders and leaders of color to have people willing to sponsor them by defending them to others. Defense involves a certain amount of risk, and it is the responsibility of the most powerful sponsors – usually white men – to take that risk.
What the Defense looks like
Sponsors work to confirm, create, or change the perception and behavior of a person or audience of a protégé. Sometimes an outside party has a positive view of the protégé, and a sponsor only provides further confirmation of that impression. In other cases, the sponsor can create a positive perception of the protégé by introducing them to an external party, using the protégé’s association with the sponsor to seed the relationship.
Anyone, no matter how much power they hold, can sponsor others by confirming a positive impression or creating one by introducing them to an external party. But changing other people’s opinions of a representative by shielding them from criticism is something best done by sponsors in positions of power.
For example, Tina, * a director of country level management for a global biopharmaceutical company, knows the importance of having top sponsors who not only create and confirm positive impressions, but also withstands potential criticism. Before taking on leadership roles in biopharma, Tina worked at a global consulting firm, where she had a respected sponsor who not only confirmed her abilities and created relationships that allowed her to progress, but also defends him when there are obstacles. His support was especially critical when his performance faltered during transitions between offices and supervisors. Because of their close relationship, he was able to gather information about the context and “paint a picture for the review committee of what [she] brought in terms of value” by telling a “multi-faceted story about the context and [her] perspective.”
Tina’s abilities had to be put into context again when a senior leader of a biopharmaceutical company wanted to hire her in a leadership role. In the new position, Tina will not only move from consulting to biopharmaceuticals, but also from a client-facing role to one more focused on managing large internal teams. Insiders at the hiring company are pushing back on his potential appointment, questioning whether he has the leadership abilities needed to succeed in his new role. Tina’s sponsor countered by providing more information about her previous success leading large teams in an informal capacity. Once hired, his high performance led him to quickly rise to higher levels in the organization.
Who Should Defend
Defending proteges is risky business, no matter how powerful we are. This is because when we defend our beliefs, we act by telling other people that we disagree with them, that they are wrong, and that they need to change their minds. Most people do not like to say any things. That makes it so that when sponsors defend their clients, they risk alienating their peers and damaging important relationships. This potential risk can be particularly high for sponsors who are themselves members of marginalized groups.
For example, in a 2019 episode of HBR’s Women at Work podcast, lawyer Cristina Massa talks about her sponsorship of her protégé, Julia Gonzalez. Massa, the only female partner at a 20-partner law firm, described how her advocacy for hiring Gonzalez changed their careers. Massa said, “Since I introduced her to the law firm, Julia’s mistakes are also my mistakes. If he doesn’t get here, I will too…I know people are watching…[because] Women can be more dangerous hires than men, just because of the way things work.
Many companies have embraced the strategy of “trickle-down” diversity, or the belief that greater diversity in leadership representation results in greater diversity at lower levels. there some evidence that increasing female and minority representation in key leadership positions will increase female and minority representation throughout the company. For example, the greater the gender diversity of a board of directors, the greater the possibility that a female CEO will be appointed and her term will be longer. Some research has found that there is a female CEO associated with more representation of women in leadership.
One of the expectations of “trickle-down” diversity is that when women and racial minorities are in leadership roles, they are more likely to advocate for policies and structures that promote equity. throughout the organization. They are also likely to be expected to sponsor young women and employees of color. But this expectation can increase inequity. When we expect — overtly or otherwise — same-sex or same-race sponsorship relationships, we ask women and minority sponsors to highlight protégés who are more likely to encounter bias and therefore the more it needs to be defended. In doing so, we ask the same sponsors to take reputational risk by putting themselves in situations where they are more likely to CEBU of peers for raising concerns about potential bias.
If advocacy puts sponsors’ relationships at risk, if female and racial minority protégés are more likely to need advocacy, and if sponsorship relationships are expected to be same-sex or same-race, then the potential costs of pursuing DEI goals in organizations can be an unfair burden borne mostly by women and members of marginalized groups. It also means that the most powerful sponsors (usually white men) see themselves as off the hook for building strong relationships with women and members of marginalized groups. group.
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Anyone can be a sponsor. But not all sponsors can participate in the same forms of sponsorship. The most dangerous form – advocacy – is precisely the form of sponsorship that women and minority protégés need most. When we combine this with our expectations that women and minority leaders be more responsible for sponsoring diverse talent, we run into a system that threatens to reproduce the very inequities we seek to address. through the efforts of DEI. What this means, is that the “risk” of sponsorship is greater for some of us than for others. The onus should be on those in positions of power who are not women and members of marginalized groups to speak up and change minds.
* Name changed for privacy.