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Sarah Dinolfo
Sarah Dinolfo

Paying it forward pays back

Mentoring high potential employees reaps career advancement opportunities and compensation growth for the coach. See what else the survey data shows about the benefits of developing a protégé.

July 19, 2012
by Sarah Dinolfo

Being able to take charge, make sound decisions, and get the most out of your direct reports by inspiring them to achieve goals are essential skills. But helping others to live up to their full potential is also a crucial part of successful leadership. According to a groundbreaking new Catalyst study, supporting the development of other talented employees pays off not only for high-potential employees but also for those who cultivate them.

The Promise of Future Leadership report series surveys graduates of leading business schools in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia, with the intent of assessing their career values, goals, and expectations, the developmental opportunities afforded them, and their strategies for managing work and family life. The reports highlight the differences in women's and men's career experiences and satisfaction; some feature perspectives from global leaders and other experts.

Contrary to popular wisdom, more women than men invest time and energy in helping others move up the career ladder. According to Leaders Pay It Forward, the latest study in a Catalyst series, The Promise of Future Leadership: Highly Talented Employees in the Pipeline, which develops timely reports on the retention and advancement of high potential women and men, high-potential talent who were themselves mentored, coached, or sponsored to advance in their careers are more likely to “pay it forward” by helping to develop the next generation of leaders.

According to the most recent study in this series, paying it forward pays back. It benefits not only protégés themselves but often leads to career advancement and compensation growth for their mentors and sponsors as well—$25,075 in additional compensation between 2008 and 2010, for those surveyed for our report. Why is this? It could be that developing other talent generates greater visibility and a following within the organization for the high-potentials who are doing the developing, which leads to greater recognition and reward for going that extra mile.

Far from holding them back, women leaders tend to give other talented employees a professional boost. Sixty-five percent of women who received support earlier in their careers are now developing new talent, compared to only 56% of men—and 73% of the women developing new talent are developing other women, compared to only 30% of men. This finding refutes the oft-cited “queen bee” myth, which is the belief that women are reluctant to provide career support to other women and may even actively work to undermine each other.

Overall, the report found that high-potential employees who were paying it forward today recognize that others once took a chance on them, and it’s their turn to do the same for someone else. Fifty-nine percent of senior executive/CEOs (both men and women) reported having received this type of support, compared with only 47% at a nonmanagerial level and were also most likely to develop others because of the support they had received. The report also found that 63% of those who had received such support were more proactive in their career advancement in comparison to the 42% who stayed relatively inactive with regard to using career advancement strategies.

Given that men still hold most senior positions within most organizations, and that involving men in women’s development creates men who become champions of women’s advancement, Catalyst encourages men as well as women to view developing and sponsoring female talent as essential to good leadership.

The report poses several key questions for companies and leaders to consider. For instance: How is your organization creating a culture of talent development? Do you have a compelling, well-communicated business case for diversity and inclusion? What will motivate your talent to “pay it forward” to the next generation of leaders? How can more men be encouraged to develop women? How can your organization disarm stigmas about spending time with the opposite sex at work? Are you encouraging those in senior positions to “look broadly, look deeply, and look often” to find talent that may not be getting exposure and support? How do you reward senior women—and men—who make a serious effort to develop female talent?

Paying it forward is an essential element of being an outstanding leader, and it benefits everyone involved. Catalyst hopes this new report will help to dispel unfair and inaccurate stereotypes of women at work and prompt businesses and leaders to consider what their organizations can do to create a workplace culture that rewards this generous and valuable behavior.

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Sarah Dinolfo is director of research at Catalyst. Drawing on her research and consulting experience with Fortune 500 companies in several industries, she works with organizations to build diversity awareness and create more effective systems that can level the workplace playing field.