Sponsorship: Diversifying the Pipeline of Emerging Leaders

Fall 2020

By Thu-Nga Morris

PepFA2.jpgExpanding the racial and gender diversity of school heads continues to be a challenge for independent schools. Although there has been some progress in building leadership that more closely mirrors our diverse student population, this progress has been minimal at best when it comes to the appointment of women and people of color to headships. And with students of color making up a majority of the K–12 population, hiring school heads whose demographic backgrounds reflect the makeup of the student population is more urgent than ever.
Female heads make up about a third while people of color make up about 7% of all NAIS independent school heads, according to 2018 Data and Analysis for School Leadership (DASL) data. In 2018-2019, only 51 heads at NAIS schools self-identified as women of color. The racial and gender composition of school heads is in stark contrast to the pipeline of senior administrators in the ranks: Women make up nearly three-quarters of senior administrators, and people of color make up about a fifth of the administrative population, according to recent DASL data.
The underrepresentation of women and people of color in headships raises questions about the search process for heads of school. Although factors such as education and work experience are taken into consideration in head searches, previous studies have shown that the race and gender of candidates influence their perceived credibility, and women and people of color are held to a higher standard in the search process. Affinity-based mentoring and leadership programs—such as The Heads Network’s Women’s Leadership Seminar, the Interschool Leadership Institute, the Kingswood Oxford Leadership Institute, the Professional Learning Community for Emerging Leaders of Color, and NAIS’s People of Color Conference—have created opportunities for women and people of color to connect professionally and grow their networks. But despite such programs, white males continue to hold a disproportionate number of headships in independent schools. Given the robust evidence on the pervasiveness of gender and racial disparities in organizations, independent schools are pressed to identify the multiple levers that could be critical to appointing more women and people of color to headships.
Career sponsorship is one key strategy that could help accelerate the upward career mobility of women and people of color to headships. In Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career, author Sylvia Ann Hewlett broadly defines sponsorship as the act of advocating for and advancing a high performer in a professional network. Unlike mentoring, which assumes a supportive role and is more akin to counseling, effective sponsorship enhances the professional skill set, credibility, and visibility of an employee, and it must lead to the subsequent promotion of an employee. A 2011 Catalyst research report, “Sponsoring Women to Success,” characterizes sponsorship as “active support by someone appropriately placed in the organization who has significant influence on decision-making processes or structures and who is advocating for, protecting, and fighting for the career advancement of an individual.” Because women and people of color inevitably experience gender and racial discrimination in independent schools, sponsorship, if executed deliberately and generously, could help accelerate their career advancement and appointment to headships.  
In the spring and summer of 2019, we conducted a study to examine the influence of sponsorship on the career advancement of heads prior to their first headships using survey and interview methods. The survey of 325 independent school heads gathered information about school heads and their sponsors, including background details, demonstrated sponsor support activities, and characteristics of racial and gendered interactions. The interviews targeted 30 female heads of color who shared perspectives on their experiences with sponsorship. We learned that the dynamics of power and trust in same- and cross-racial sponsor-protégé relationships are crucial elements to understanding the pipeline of school leadership.

The Landscape of Sponsor-Protégé Relationships

Slightly fewer than half of the survey respondents were women, and people of color comprised one-fifth of the total number of participants. While not all of the 325 participants reported having a sponsor, 61% of heads (188) reported having at least one sponsor prior to their first headship and answered questions about their experiences with sponsorship. When asked to reflect on a primary sponsor who had the greatest influence on their career trajectory, 67% of heads reported that their primary sponsors were male, and 91% of heads reported that their primary sponsors were white. Seventy-three percent of sponsors were current or retired heads of school, and 91% had been involved in independent schools for 20 or more years.
We also found that heads were more likely to be sponsored by a person of the same race. (See chart below.) White heads of school were more likely to have had white sponsors (83%), and school heads of color were more likely to have had sponsors of color (9 out of 15 or 56%), though school heads of color reported greater cross-racial sponsor-protégé relationships compared to white heads of school. White sponsors, who make up a large percentage of sponsors overall, are likely to have a role in sponsoring white people to headships. Sponsors of color also play an important role in sponsoring people of color to headships. These results are important, suggesting that the racial dynamic of sponsorship might be one factor that explains the perpetuation of a dominant white headship structure. 
Additionally, there are significant differences in how much access heads of color (compared to white heads) have to more powerful insider sponsors. Of the five sponsor professions available in the survey (trustee, current or retired head, administrator, consultant, other), the majority of the heads (83% for heads of color and 85% for white heads) in the sample identified their sponsors as coming from the two most senior positions of power inside of independent schools (trustees and heads). Heads of color also reported a significant difference between the number of senior sponsors and junior sponsors (administrator, consultant) of color who are arguably distant from or lower in status, power, and decision-making in independent school leadership. (See chart on page 90.) A third group of identified sponsors were labeled “others” and included various leaders in public schools, churches, or teaching centers—none involved directly with independent schools. Additionally, only 3% of white heads reported having had a senior sponsor of color, while only 63% of heads of color reported having access to senior white sponsors. This lack of exposure to leaders of color may influence how future heads and sponsors develop the skills to disrupt or maintain the racial disparities of leadership in independent schools.
For independent school leaders of color and their white sponsors, learning how to navigate the complexities of cross-racial sponsor-protégé relationships is key to building the trust that is necessary for a successful sponsoring relationship. This trust-building can lead to supportive dialogues that encourage learning across differences. In reflecting on the challenges that surface from biases that emerge between sponsors and their protégés, one female head of school wrote:
People need to trust a sponsor and feel vulnerable with him or her, and the sponsor needs to take a professional interest in the younger colleague and believe in her advancement. If those connections cannot be established because of differences in gender, race, sexual orientation, and the implicit biases that accompany these differences, it can be more challenging to sponsor or get sponsored.


The act of sponsoring people of color to headships must not rest inequitably on sponsors of color, who already are subjected to micro- and macroaggressions in independent schools. Because a majority of people who are in positions of power and influence in independent schools are white, white sponsors, even more so than people of color, must take active steps to regularly challenge their biases against people of color and exercise their influence to promote more people of color to headships. White sponsors have a responsibility to disrupt the status quo and contribute to the diversification of heads of school.
The survey revealed interesting information on the stress of sponsor-protégé relationships. Heads of school who reported having frequent and supportive conversations about diversity with their sponsors were more likely to report lower levels of stress in addressing racial and gender conflict with their sponsors; they were also more likely to report that their sponsors were competent in offering them professional support. Having intentional conversations about diversity and inclusion can improve the quality of sponsor-protégé relationships and a protégé’s career satisfaction and success.

Benefits and Limitations of Sponsorship

The female heads of color offered valuable insights into the benefits of being sponsored prior to their first headships. Effective sponsors engaged in multiple activities that prepared and positioned them for securing headships. Specifically:
  1. Sponsors presented opportunities to develop leadership skills without over-mentoring.
  2. Sponsors promoted protégés to leadership roles.
  3. Sponsors expanded the visibility of protégés and enhanced their credibility by publicly endorsing their professional accomplishments.
  4. Sponsors supported appointments to boards.
  5. Sponsors encouraged protégés to actively apply to jobs elsewhere.
One head of school shared the profound influence her female sponsor had on her career trajectory:
In her final year, she decided to take a sabbatical, and she asked me to stand in as interim head of school. All of those opportunities—along with allowing me to step in with her during various board meetings, or fundraising campaigns, meeting with different leaders on the ground—all of those things gave me a taste of what my appetite for a head of school position was.


Male sponsors, too, played an important role in sponsoring women of color prior to their first headships. By some accounts, male sponsors exercised their position and influence to create opportunities for women of color to advance professionally in independent schools. Referring to the access to resources and social networks she gained from her white male sponsor, one head of school wrote:
He recognized there were opportunities closed to me because of my race and gender, and that without his allyship they would have remained closed. He intentionally used his privilege and power to make those opportunities available to me.

 Despite the benefits of being in a sponsoring relationship, there were also limitations if the sponsor did not openly embrace differences or did not actively work toward creating a diverse and inclusive culture in the school community. Differences in perspectives on race, gender, sexual orientation, and generational outlook, if left unsettled, were found to compromise the quality of relationships with sponsors. Reflecting on her experience with sponsors of an older generation, one head recounted:
Both of my sponsors are significantly older and though the benefits of their collective wisdom is exceptional, many of their on-the-ground solutions and advice are dated. This was particularly evident in our work surrounding equity, diversity, and gender. The limitation therefore becomes a gift. I had to articulate and embody my beliefs in louder ways. This was ultimately part of what helped me know I was ready for a headship.

For some female heads of color, establishing a fully supportive relationship with a sponsor proved to be challenging if sponsors perceived them to be threats. The “pet” to “threat” phenomenon, described in the 2013 book Psychological Health of Women of Color: Intersections, Challenges, and Opportunities, occurs when a male supervisor, most often a white male, is threatened by the strong performance and talents of a woman of color and begins to mistreat her in order to downplay her accomplishments and advance his own agenda. One woman recounted her experience with a white male head of school:
There would be things that would happen in the institution where I might give him a perspective on something he should do, but that he didn’t quite trust, so then he would pursue things the way he felt he needed to pursue them.

For numerous female heads of color, establishing relationships with sponsors of color played a significant role in helping them navigate the microaggressions and passive-aggressive behavior they experienced in independent schools. Sponsors of color not only engaged in the aforementioned sponsoring activities, they also coached female heads of color to favorably position themselves as strong candidates of color. It was common for sponsors to intensely endorse them until they received head of school offers. Sponsors of color, particularly female sponsors of color, offered suggestions on how aspiring female heads of color could cope with and address racial and gender biases in head searches, frequently putting their reputations on the line in their endorsement. One female head of color shared:
[My female sponsor of color] had put my name out to the search consultants. She was very forceful in her approach. In some ways, I think that she swayed the search consultants and the board at that time to even consider me because they wanted a fresh face.

Recommendations and Next Steps

While there are multiple pathways to headship, active and intentional sponsor-protégé relationships can help accelerate the career mobility of women and people of color in independent schools. These leaders must overcome racial and gender discrimination, and sponsorship could help them build their résumés and gain the social capital and credibility to overcome perceived shortcomings in head searches.
Establish relationships with more than one sponsor. This gives rise to varied opportunities to grow in different contexts. Supportive relationships with sponsors of different backgrounds and experiences can help aspiring heads entertain different world views and leadership styles. Multiple sponsors also minimize potential risks associated with relying on one sponsor. For women of color, building a network of trusted mentors and sponsors can help mitigate the “pet” to “threat” risk and help leverage the rich knowledge and resources to meet the demands of an everchanging, diverse society.
Make conversations about race and gender a priority in sponsor-protégé relationships. In addition to presenting aspiring heads with a range of leadership opportunities, sponsors should have open conversations about how race and gender influence their protégés’ experiences and career outlook. Sponsors who engage in intentional conversations about diversity and inclusion with their protégés are more likely to have stronger relationships with their protégés, thus increasing the likelihood that a protégé experiences career satisfaction and success. For people of color, being in a trusting, supportive, and strategic sponsor-protégé relationship can positively influence their career outlook and success.
If you are in a position to sponsor, generously sponsor the next generation of heads. A sponsor-protégé relationship is one that not only promotes a protégé, but often results in a protégé transitioning to the role of a peer. This relationship serves as an apprenticeship or succession model that culminates in the “passing of the torch” to the protégé. Remember that most white protégés in our study (96%) reported receiving no guidance from sponsors of color. So sponsors can encourage protégés to expand their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) knowledge and seek support from senior sponsors of color. Moreover, senior sponsors should improve their DEI knowledge and skills to better sponsor protégés on culturally competent leadership. 
The most impactful sponsors in this study were recognized for their skills in preparing and positioning future heads of school. Effective sponsors did not hold protégés back but actively encouraged their protégés to spread their wings and pursue leadership opportunities elsewhere. Effective sponsors were not perceived as being threatened by the success of their protégés and exhibited pride in creating opportunities for them to grow and develop. Of significant note, effective sponsors were compassionate and generous in sharing their wisdom. The generosity of a sponsor can empower future sponsors to pay it forward, as one woman of color shared:
When I think about the amount of time a good sponsor puts into a protégé, I am humbled and overcome by the number of people who have so generously taken an interest in me. I stand on their shoulders every day that I walk into my job, no matter what I am doing, and I feel a responsibility to make them proud and to ensure they do not regret the effort they took to make me a stronger educator.


Go Deeper

The number of female heads has remained around one-third of the total population of school leaders since the early 2000s. The percentage of heads of color grew from 4 percent in the early 2000s to 7 percent in 2017. In 2018, NAIS released the results of a two-phase study conducted in 2016 to identify the root causes of the underrepresentation of people of color and white women in headship. The “People of Color and White Women in Independent School Headship” report details the findings of the study, includes guidelines for search committees to follow to ensure women and candidates from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds have equal opportunities during the hiring process, and offers suggestions for schools to understand and support aspiring leaders who are people of color and white women.
Thu-Nga Morris

Thu-Nga Morris is lower school director at The Pingry School in Short Hills, New Jersey, and a graduate of the Mid-Career Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership at the University of Pennsylvania.