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The male leaders committed to sponsoring women

Since men still hold most power, women ascending the career ladder often need sponsorship from an influential male leader. Leaders from Target, Campbell Soup, and Bloomberg provide insight.

The male leaders committed to sponsoring women
[Photo: Alistair Berg/Getty Images]

There’s a lot that goes into rising through the ranks in a career. It’s more than being smart, meeting expectations, and working hard. Supercharging your career requires having someone in a high-ranking leadership position willing to use their power and influence to vouch, open doors, and chisel away at the glass ceiling for you.

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We recently interviewed very successful women on how they got the sponsorship that changed their careers. And while science has told us that women need other women to get ahead, the reality is, there just aren’t enough women at the top who can transfer power to the next generation of women all by themselves. In other words, for high-achieving women, ascending the career ladder, more often than not, requires sponsorship from an influential male leader.

“Men are still in powerful positions so we have to be sponsored by men,” Lorraine Hariton, president and CEO of Catalyst, tells Fast Company at the 2019 Catalyst Awards. “One of the key things [Catalyst is] trying to do is get more men to be part of the conversation. Men need to be a part of the solution.”

Unfortunately, changing the culture is sometimes halted in the #MeToo age where we’ve heard an unsettling number of stories of men who have decided it’s safer to avoid women at all costs in the workplace. When this backlash happens, it slows down efforts to close the gender gap and threatens the advancement of women into leadership ranks.

Luckily, there are also stories of men who step forward to push for positive change. These male leaders train the men on their teams to have uncomfortable conversations and call out bias in real time.

These are the stories of the men who do just that–and how they do it.

Leadership isn’t supposed to be comfortable with certainty

If great powers come with great responsibilities, then it’s in the job description that true leaders have the courage to get their people to where they need to be, not where they have been. Often, that path is not smooth and straightforward.

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Peter Grauer, chairman of the board of Bloomberg L.P., knows this sentiment all too well. He recalls his first experience sponsoring a woman leader a “painful process,” not because of the woman he was sponsoring, who he calls “exceptional,” but rather, convincing others that she was capable and “getting over that first hump,” he explains.

But, according to Grauer, taking a stand–no matter how uncomfortable–is critical for competition. It’s not only salient from a recruiting point of view, but a diverse and inclusive population is also crucial for the quality in decision making, execution, and ultimately performance, he explains, and the male leaders who don’t get that will underperform their peer group and competitors.

“I’ve been in a couple of presentations where you get into the room, and there are seven or eight white guys making decisions, and I just look at them and I say to myself, ‘I don’t get why they aren’t intuitive enough or thoughtful enough to embrace what others who are more thoughtful do.'”

This belief is partly why Grauer agreed when asked to participate on a panel for the LGBTQ community, despite being “absolutely terrified.”

“I was convinced I was going to say something stupid and embarrass our company and embarrass me, as a result of it, and it turned out to be one of those seminal events,” he says. Afterward, Grauer joined the Out Leadership advisory board because he felt “it’s important to make a statement.”

Around April 2014, Grauer remembers having a conversation with Michael Bloomberg about the importance of “driving the stake in the ground and rallying the troops around the importance of a diverse and inclusive workplace as it relates to our ability to compete effectively around the world.”

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Since then, Grauer says he leads a number of diversity and inclusion efforts and hasn’t looked back.

“Everytime we take a step forward, we take a step halfway backward,” he says. “It’s not without frustrations, on the one hand, but on the other, I am absolutely convinced, I would do it no other way. My responsibility is to be persistent and a real pain in the ass for people.”

Similarly to Grauer, Jeffery Halter believes it’s a leader’s responsibility to lead in a “respectful way” and sees this kind of leadership as not a “nice to do,” but rather, critical from a business standpoint. Taking this responsibility a step further, Halter, who served as the director of diversity and inclusion in his last role with The Coca-Cola Company where he spent 26 years, believes male leaders who are aware of discrimination in the advancement of women and ignore it, should be fired.

“There is no greater time for CEOs in this country to send out a memo stating zero tolerance, no exceptions,” says Halter. “This notion that men can’t meet with women behind closed doors, that’s not acceptable, and if you have a leader who says he can’t meet with you for coffee or behind closed doors, [the CEO should] want to hear about that. We can’t stop talking to 50% of our workforce.”

All of this requires male leaders to have and lead conversations about what’s appropriate and what’s not in the workplace. Getting there requires leaders to ask women in the company “What don’t I understand about what you feel every day?” and then shutting up and listening, says Halter. It also means clearly defining what harassment looks like in your culture. For instance, can you say, “That’s a nice blouse,” to a colleague?

“This is not another program that you’re going to attend,” he explains. “This is not another policy that’s going to come out from HR.” And only when leaders are willing to lead in this way, will they see male leaders in their companies willing to have the necessary uncomfortable conversations and eventually, advocate for and sponsor women on their teams.

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Don’t worry about the naysayers. Not everyone is going to be on board

The risk of taking a powerful stand is that you will alienate some people. Doug Conant, who served as the CEO and president of the Campbell Soup Company from 2001 to 2011, says leaders need to take a stand and then, focus their energies on men who want to engage, while ignoring the naysayers.

“It’s unfortunate, but we’re moving in a certain direction, and if they don’t want to be part of it, they don’t have to be a part of it,” says Conant, who is now founder and CEO of Conant Leadership. “I have found that there are plenty of people who want to be a part of that journey.”

When Conant took over Campbell Soup in 2001, the company’s stocks were fast falling, and business outlook was troubling.

“Among other things, I found there were a collection of well-intended and capable white men trying to figure out how to make soup for women in their home kitchens,” he tells Fast Company. “It was like, ‘Guys, we can do better than this.'”

To turn the company around, Conant held himself–and his managers–accountable to the new standard.

“I think CEOs now, more now than ever, need to be out in front on issues because the world is moving so fast, that if they haven’t taken a position, a position will be taken for them by forces outside of their ability to influence,” he says. That means not only talking the walk, but walking it.

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“It’s not about your company owning it,” he adds. “You have to own it.”

When it comes to men who are backing away from interacting with women in the workplace for fear of being inappropriate, Conant calls “bullshit.”

He says: “[These men] are accomplished people. They can figure it out. This is not rocket science here. This is human dignity. This is a human thing. This is not a woman thing, in my opinion. Diversity and inclusion is appropriately very focused on empowering women, but it’s not inclusive to women. It’s about empowering everyone to be their best selves at work. These guys have to figure it out. Sorry you feel a little awkward. Give me a break.”

Take your stand. Then repeat it. Repetition matters

For Grauer, it’s important that his message around diversity and inclusion is clear and consistent at Bloomberg.

“The people working for our company work incredibly hard, and they’re under a lot of pressure from a tactical point of view, and sometimes, thinking about these things are not second nature for them,” he said.

At Target, Mike McNamara, who is the company’s chief information officer, has long championed initiatives that help put women and members of other underrepresented groups in management roles. McNamara says building a diverse technology team at Target has been a top goal of his and that his communication about gender-equity goals is consistent across all teams.

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“As a leader at Target, I have a role to play to make this a priority for my team and to help set goals to measure our progress,” he tells Fast Company. “We met our goal this year to have half of our new technology recruits be women. That helps us today, and in several years, our hope is that those women are still with us.”

Similarly to McNamara, Conant required that every high potential cohort was appropriately diverse at Campbell Soup–and ignored the naysayers along the way. But it’s the soft stuff–the human stuff–that’s the hard stuff, he explains.

“We needed to win in the workplace before we could win in the marketplace before we could win in the community at large,” Conant says. “These big problems are big problems for a reason. If they were easy, they would have already been fixed.”

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About the author

Vivian Giang is a business writer of gender conversations, leadership, entrepreneurship, workplace psychology, and whatever else she finds interesting related to work and play. You can find her on Twitter at @vivian_giang.

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