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Mentorship, Sponsorship, and Credibility: Pillars of DEI

“Roughly about 5% of all Fortune 500 board seats are held by Latinos. Only about 1% are held by Latinas. And when you look at the C-Suite, the numbers are not that different. It tells you that there is a huge pipeline challenge taking place in corporate America, in which Latinos are not being sponsored into these key roles,” said Cid Wilson.


As President and Chief Executive Officer of the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility (HACR), a Washington, DC-based organization dedicated to advancing Hispanic inclusion in corporate America, Cid Wilson knows a thing or two about the leadership path for Hispanics in today’s business world. During his Wall Street career, he worked his way up from the mail room of an investment firm to become a Forbes-ranked Wall Street Equity Specialty Research Analyst. A proud Dominican American from Washington Heights and New Jersey, he is the first Afro-Latino CEO to lead any national Hispanic organization.


HACR itself has a proud track record of making history. It is the first Hispanic organization to be a member of the CMBCCO Council; it’s also part of the Fortune magazine global CEO initiative and the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion’s governing committee. Since its inception in 1986, HACR has been a trailblazer and a strong voice for Latino excellence and representation. It has worked with over 120 Fortune 500 partners while reminding corporate America that they must do more to advance Hispanic inclusion at their companies and beyond.


Building a Foundation of Sponsorship

The idea of sponsorship is one that Wilson returns to describe some of the “missing pieces” that inhibit Latinx talent from reaching those C-suite and board positions.


“Under today’s current corporate culture, it goes like this: If you show me your resume, I’ll show you a mid-level manager job. If you show me your sponsorship, I’ll show you the C-suite. If you show me your credibility, I’ll show you a board seat,” he explains. “Even though we have an incredibly qualified and accomplished group in our American Latino community, we are not being recognized for sponsorship opportunities, which is required to get into these senior and executive level positions.”


The research is there to prove his point. According to one study, for instance, Latinos with workplace sponsors are 42% more likely to say they are satisfied with their career progression than Latinos without sponsors — but high-earning Latino employees in large companies are less likely than their white colleagues even to have sponsors.


What does sponsorship mean in this context? For many, “sponsorship” and “mentorship” are blurred. The Harvard Business Review offers the following framework to try to differentiate between the two concepts:

“Sponsorship can be understood as a form of intermediate impression management, where sponsors act as brand managers and publicists for their protégés. This work involves the management of others’ views on the sponsored employee. Thus, the relationship at the heart of sponsorship is not between protégés and sponsors, as is often thought, but between sponsors and an audience — the people they mean to sway to the side of their protégés.


Whereas mentorship focuses on help that a mentor can provide directly, such as guidance, advice, feedback on skills, and coaching, sponsorship entails externally facing support, such as advocacy, visibility, promotion, and connections. Seeing sponsorship as a three-way relationship between sponsors, protégés, and an audience clarifies the difference between it and mentorship.”

Sponsorship becomes a fundamental element of DEI&B work because it focuses not just on the skill-building but on the more nebulous aspects of the professional world that can make the difference between a mid-tier career and an office in the C-suite. Rather than just supporting a protégé’s career, a sponsor amplifies their voice, helps them network, and vouches for them in significant ways.


Diversity of Roles

While slow progress is being made toward getting Hispanic leaders into top roles, it’s important to consider precisely which roles these are.


“Diverse candidates over-index in areas of communications, diversity and inclusion, human resources, government affairs, community affairs, and foundation. And we are significantly under-indexed in the chief marketing officers, chief financial officers, general counsel, chief operating officer, chief technology officers — those positions where there is a history of ascending to becoming a future chief executive officer,” Wilson notes.


“It’s one of the reasons why we are alarmed that only one Latina is a Fortune 500 CEO. That’s Priscilla Almodovar, the CEO of Fannie Mae. There’s now only one Black woman who’s a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and that’s Thasunda Brown Duckett, the CEO of TIAA. It’s not an accident that so few women of color from historically underrepresented communities are not CEOs. We’re not promoting diversity and inclusion in the power positions. We are not doing enough sponsorship into the C-suites, and we’re not acculturating to add that credibility to ensure we are getting enough people on corporate boards.”


The Credibility Factor

When Wilson talks about “credibility,” he’s echoing a common thread among many Hispanic professionals (and other non-white, non-male candidates): the idea of a “credible” persona for a leader. As he points out, the standards for “credibility” are nebulous. Still, they often come down, once again, to historical biases being taken as objective facts rather than as subjective products of biased times.


“Credibility is a function of a very old fashioned, often usually a white male paradigm of what is credibility, then you’re looking for an assimilated diverse candidate. And as we become more acculturated, it means that there are still those in corporate America that are not recognizing our acculturated selves as credible for these board seats,” Wilson explains. “Our position at the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility is that it is acculturation, not assimilation. And that corporate America needs to acculturate to the growing Hispanic community, not ask us to assimilate to a 150-year-old model that simply doesn’t work for a growing multicultural society. Once we address that, we can address the pipeline into the C-suite and how to increase the number of Latinos and Latinos on corporate boards.”


A significant number of Hispanic/Latino professionals have reported variations on this firsthand. 53% of Latinas and 44% of Latino men say “executive presence” at their companies is defined by traditionally white, male standards; 43% of Latinas and 33% of Latino men also believe that they have to compromise their authentic selves if they are to meet “executive presence” standards at their companies. Those with power must take the initiative and set a more diverse example, re-evaluating where unconscious bias plays a part in deciding who “seems” like leadership material.


As one expert puts it in the Harvard Business Review, “Corporate leaders may not be able to change the world, but they can certainly change their world… Organizations are relatively small, autonomous entities that afford leaders a high control over cultural norms and procedural rules, making them ideal places to develop policies and practices that promote racial equity.”[4] Wilson’s call for change reminds us that equity doesn’t come easily, and we all have a part to play – but we can’t be complacent. Only action, at whatever scale we can each manage, can affect the changes we need for a better and more equitable world.


By Ruben Moreno


About the Author

After a 25-year career in Corporate Human Resources and HR Executive Search, Ruben Moreno and his two partners co-founded Blue Rock Search based on a simple but ambitious vision of creating a firm that would “Change Lives and Organizations One Relationship at a Time.”  Ruben leads the Blue Rock HR & Diversity Executive Search practice specializing in the identification, assessment, recruitment, and onboarding of Chief HR Officers and Chief Diversity Officers and their respective teams — inclusive of leaders in Talent Acquisition, Total Rewards, HRBP’s, Learning & OD, HR Technology, HR Operations, and HR Analytics. Ruben has helped place hundreds of HR Executives and built deep relationships within the CHRO community across multiple industry verticals. His clients consider him a trusted partner who takes the time to understand their business and add value beyond executive search.

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