It's been nearly two generations since college-educated women and people of color started pouring into the professional ("white" collar) workforce. Back then, no one doubted that the ambitious ones would eventually move into the executive suite. With greater access to both educational and professional opportunities, making it to the top was simply a matter of time.
But something went awry. While highly qualified women and minorities pack the talent-rich section right below the C-suite, they're not shattering that last glass ceiling in the numbers once anticipated.
There's a reason that the face of the conventional model of business success is still a white man. It's not that white men boast better leadership skills or management savvy or customer smarts. It's that they have better connections. In a word, they have sponsors.
Mentors and sponsors are often conflated; the fact is, they are two entirely different roles. Mentors are advisors and sounding boards: They lend a sympathetic ear, decipher the unwritten code of office conduct, and suggest how best to navigate the uncharted paths to power. Sponsors open doors. They connect you to career opportunities, advocate for your promotion and provide air cover when you encounter trouble.
Mentors listen; sponsors deliver. And vive la différence!
With sponsorship, the ambitious and highly qualified make it to the senior-most suite, no matter how stiff the headwinds. Without it, they languish in the lower echelons -- no matter how hard they work, no matter how well they perform.
I've had personal experience of this. With a resume sparkling with academic achievements -- post-graduate work at Harvard on a Kennedy Scholarship, a Ph.D. from London University -- I landed a sought-after first job as assistant professor of economics at Barnard College, Columbia University, and began to forge what should have been a promising career in academics. Except that I made the classic female mistake. I thought if I put my head down and did my job extraordinarily well, my value to the organization would be self-evident and, of course, I would be recognized and promoted.
In retrospect, I could kick myself. Why didn't I understand that at these beginning stages of a serious and super-competitive career, I needed a sponsor? Someone with power who believed in me and was prepared to propel and protect me as I set about climbing the ladder?
Don't get me wrong: I acquired a ton of supporters. Like many women, I was good at friendships and during my time at Barnard, I developed mentoring relationships with several close female colleagues, who were especially supportive when I was trying to balance the demands of a new baby and a high-octane job. But their lack of clout became clear when I came up for tenure.
In the months leading up to the decision, I was increasingly confident. I had always been an outstanding teacher -- my ratings were off the chart. My recent book had garnered great reviews and the attention of policy makers as well as scholars. As I helped my chairman assemble my dossier, I thought that it looked pretty impressive.
Imagine my shock when, three months later, I was denied tenure. My department was unanimously in my favor but the university-wide committee shot me down in a three-to-two vote. It turned out I had no advocates at this critical, final level. No one even knew me. According to a friend of a friend who knew something about the deliberations of the committee, the only thing about my seven-year track record that attracted the committee's attention was that I'd recently given birth to a premature baby. They feared this would "dilute my focus."
As I regrouped and attempted to figure out how to reinvent my professional life, one thing was sure: I'd learned my lesson about sponsorship. I now understood that climbing the ladder in any competitive field requires heavy-duty support from a senior person with heft and influence -- preferably more than one of them.
It's not easy to find a sponsor. You need to earn this kind of investment. "Sponsorship only works when it's a two-way street," says Patricia Fili-Krushel, chairwoman of the news group at NCBUniversal. "It can't be just 'Gimme, gimme, gimme -- I need help, I need advice.'" You must demonstrate that you'll deliver outstanding performance, that you'll consistently make your boss look good.
"Trust is at the heart of this relationship," says Kerrie Peraino, global head of talent at American Express. "When I put my faith in up-and-coming talent and become their sponsor, I need to know I can totally depend on them -- because they are, after all, walking around with my brand on."
And that's where women and minorities often fail to attract sponsors. It's entirely natural that senior leaders prefer to sponsor people they feel most comfortable with -- members of "their tribe," who speak the same language, follow the same customs and look like them. With white men making up the vast majority of senior leaders, it's not surprising that the people they choose to sponsor are other white men.
But don't get discouraged.
As the founder of an organization focused on talent issues, I have the privilege of knowing white male executives who are committing every resource at their disposal to changing the face of leadership, and not because women's groups have pressured them into it. They understand that the best talent out there is diverse and growing more so every year. Worldwide, Center for Talent Innovation research shows that Caucasian men with college degrees comprise a mere 17 percent of the talent pipeline. There's never been a better time for highly educated and capable women and people to color to show they're eager to move into leadership roles, because the business sector is competing for them worldwide. For them -- and for you -- sponsorship is the key that turns all the tumblers, unlocking the doors all the way to the top.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power" which will take place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.