How to Choose the Right Protégé

Ed Gadsden, former chief diversity officer at Pfizer, once asked his sponsor, the legal scholar and federal judge Leon Higginbotham, why he took such an interest in him, aside from the fact they were both African American. “You’re nothing like me, Ed,” Higginbotham told him. “The people you’re around, the things you see, what you’re hearing — you provide a perspective I wouldn’t otherwise have.” Now, as a sponsor himself, Gadsden has come to appreciate the perspective his own protégés provide: “They make sure I’m never blindsided,” he says.

Building a posse of protégés is one of the smartest things a leader can do. Protégés do more than protect you. They extend your capacity and influence. Consider how much more effective — and less overworked — you are as a leader if you have an A-team to turn to whenever a crisis looms, a deadline threatens, or a massive opportunity knocks. A network of protégés makes the impossible possible.

They also add rocket fuel to your career.

In earlier research, the Center for Talent Innovation explored the importance of finding the right sponsor. As I explain in my new book, Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor, just as “the sponsor effect” adds a quantifiable boost to a protégé’s pay, promotion, career satisfaction, and retention, “the protégé effect” leverages career traction for leaders. Caucasian leaders with a posse of proactive protégés are 13% more likely to be satisfied with their rate of advancement than leaders who haven’t invested in up-and-comers. Leaders of color who have developed young talent are 30% more satisfied with their career progress than those who haven’t built that base of support.

Consider how organizations assess leadership potential, and it becomes clear why developing a posse of protégés establishes you as “leadership material”: Helping junior people evolve into major producers for the firm is what leaders do. So if you’ve succeeded in grooming a number of people for your position, you’ve made it that much easier for your superiors to promote you, as you will not leave a vacuum they have to fill.

Naturally, good leaders attract a wide field of qualified candidates. How should you decide whom to invest your time in and endow with your knowledge and experience?

Seek loyal, high-potential individuals. Performance is the critical first deliverable. Not surprisingly, what marks an individual as “high potential” is typically his or her ability to deliver superior results consistently, no matter the challenges or circumstances. According to our research, a third of U.S. managers and nearly half of UK managers say they want to sponsor a “producer,” a go-getter who hits deadlines and offers 24/7 support.

Loyalty is even more important, with 37% of male managers and 36% of female managers saying that this is the key attribute in a protégé. A loyal protégé is well-attuned to the buzz and vigilant about keeping her sponsor apprised. As leaders move up the ladder, they’re increasingly removed from the action on the front lines of the organization. They need loyal lieutenants to bridge the distance and deliver a clear, unbiased, and timely report of what’s going on.

Avoid the mini-me syndrome. The reason most multinational leadership is predominantly white and male is that those in power tend to sponsor those who remind them of themselves or those with whom they have much in common. Sponsorship depends on trust, after all, and it is human nature to place our trust in people who share our ethnicity, our religious or cultural background, our educational experience, or our interests. Our research confirms this: When we asked sponsors how they chose their protégés, the majority — 58% of women, 54% of men — owned up to choosing on the basis of comfort.

But if you’re steering a corporation into the churning waters of global competition, you simply cannot afford to pick your first mates strictly on the basis of affinity. Just as companies need a diverse workforce to remain attuned to the needs of new and emerging markets and to develop innovative products that compete in a rapidly evolving marketplace, sponsors need protégés who mirror those markets. The more diverse your team, the more likely you’ll have the toolkits necessary to solve the challenges outside your experience — and the less prone you’ll be to the perils of groupthink.

Fill in your gaps. “The best piece of advice I ever got,” says James Charrington, EMEA chair of BlackRock, “was to have the courage to employ people who are better than me.” He advises in turn, “Recognize your own weaknesses and hire people to complement your strengths by addressing your weaknesses.”

Some protégés bolster your brand through their technical expertise or social media savvy, valuable skills in today’s ever more connected world. Others contribute fluency in another language or culture. Still, others may help you advance the organization’s goals through their ability to build teams from scratch and coach raw talent. The main thing to keep in mind: Shared values more than make up for dissimilar backgrounds.

Limit yourself to a select few. Sponsorship is a high-energy commitment. While it requires less face-to-face time than mentorship, sponsorship requires much more earnest behind-the-scenes work to provide the protégé with concerted advocacy, stretch opportunities, and the air cover necessary to make risk-taking safe. Of course, this investment more than pays for itself in terms of what the protégé returns. But it is an investment. Most senior leaders can effectively sponsor three to four individuals, tops.

Over-sponsoring has its own risks. If you’re hyperextended on behalf of the people who just don’t get the quid pro quo of sponsorship, you impair your ability to be effective. Furthermore, there’s the danger of losing track of your protégé as he gets promoted out of your line of sight.

Choose protégés you can trust. When a sponsor doesn’t really know the person he or she advocates for, his or her credibility in the organization can take a hit. If your protégé isn’t doing a good job, he reflects badly on you. “He’s walking around with your brand on,” said one senior executive. “If you can’t stay involved in his career path — don’t get involved in the first place. Your reputation is at risk.”

And not just your present reputation but your long-term legacy. “At some point, you recognize that your power isn’t about climbing the mountain — you’re already at the top,” observes Rosalind Hudnell, chief diversity officer at Intel. “Using your power is about developing others, helping them achieve their leadership potential. They’re your legacy, and where your influence can make a real difference.”

In today’s rapidly changing business environment, no one person can maintain both breadth and depth of knowledge across fields and functions. But with a pocketful of the right protégés, you can put together a posse whose expertise is just a quick call away, who will burnish your brand and build your legacy.

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