Is Intentional Sponsorship the Answer to Increasing Air Force Senior Leadership Diversity?

Intentional sponsorship may be a key factor in diversifying Air Force senior leadership.

By Caitlin Thorn

Approximate reading time: 5 minutes

We do a lot of mentoring in the Air Force, and for good reason. Mentorship is a core component in fostering an airman’s professional development and growth—ensuring our force is ready to lead at the next level as they progress in rank. This is particularly critical for our officer corps, the primary leaders for our ~320,000 active duty force. As a whole, we do a pretty good job of mentoring officers to prepare them for the next grade—at the macro level mentorship opportunities are prevalent at officer developmental education schools and can be sought out on the Air Force’s newest online mentorship platform MyVECTOR. On the micro level, mentorship opportunities are usually available through informal Commander’s programs and feedback sessions with supervisors. Mentorship is stressed in the Air Force as a way to develop professionally to enable career progression. This may be true to reach the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and even perhaps Colonel, but a recent article published on War on the Rocks suggests that mentorship and job performance alone may not be enough to break into the General Officer ranks. The article contends that High Potential Officer (HPOs), or Brigadier General contenders, are selected early in their career by higher ranking officers and put on a separate path that offers more development opportunities to be competitive for the General ranks. An article from John Q. Public in 2016 echoes a similar sentiment regarding the HPO path. What these articles infer is that select chosen officers are put on this path by high ranking senior leaders, or what the corporate world refers to as sponsors, that advocate for these select individuals throughout their careers and allow them unique opportunities over equitable, and perhaps even higher performing, peers.

As the military utilizes central promotion boards to determine who is promoted to the higher grade, the idea of a sponsor is not generally espoused. Ideally it shouldn’t be necessary, but if pinning on stars is an officer’s goal, then according to the articles referenced above, one may have to think otherwise. In the corporate civilian sector with no guaranteed promotions or central selection boards, sponsors are very much a necessity to advancing up the proverbial ladder. The necessity of sponsorship from higher leadership to advance may be the very reason why diversity is lacking in upper company leadership levels. Most of the leadership at executive ranks are composed of white males. It is basic human nature to be drawn to and trust people similar to ourselves, which may be contributing to an unconscious bias of white male executives to naturally sponsor people like themselves. This practice may be the very reason why diversity is lacking in the upper levels of military leadership as generals tend to sponsor young officers similar to themselves—rated white males. The demographics of the Air Force rank statistics certainly support this idea.

Looking at rank demographics in October 2016, the percentage of minority Colonels, Brigadier Generals, and Major Generals was 7.9%, 4.2%, and 10.5% respectively. The percentage of women in the same three ranks was 13.9%, 4.8%, 9.4%, also respectively. The statistics show a rather significant percentage decrease in women and minorities from Colonel to Brigadier General. Although the percentage of each of these groups decreases with each rank, the drop from O6 to O7 is the most significant for both groups. Interestingly enough, the percentage of minority and female Major Generals almost doubles from that of Brigadier General. Why? Women and minorities typically have three times as many mentors as their while male counterparts, but half as many sponsors. If women are able to pin on a star, the pool of candidates becomes much smaller to choose from in order to advance to two-stars, so at this point merit and job performance may begin to outweigh sponsorship.

Although the statistics are not presented here, HPO sponsorship may also be a reason why career field diversity is lacking among the senior ranks. Most of the generals in the Air Force are rated officers that only make up a small percentage of the Air Force as a whole. Again, these officers may be sponsoring younger airman in similar career fields, thus contributing to lack of career field diversification at the senior ranks.

As General Goldfien put it, “[Diversity] is not about social engineering. It’s about maintaining a competitive advantage.” The premise of this commentary is not to advocate for diversity in the senior ranks. The senior ranks should be composed of the best mix of race, gender, and career field backgrounds to most effectively lead the Air Force in the future fight. What that ratio is will be for someone else to figure out. The purpose of the article is point out that if the Air Force is serious about diversifying the senior ranks, diversity initiatives alone may not be effective if the root of the problem is a subjective and opaque process that inadvertently allows social bias to determine who makes it to the top. Although correlation does not equate causation, perhaps who is being sponsored through the HPO path at the lower ranks is worth taking into consideration as part of the problem.

So what’s my advice?

For senior leaders: If the Air Force is serious about leadership diversification at the top, then perhaps transforming the “secret” HPO program into a transparent and intentional sponsorship program will allow for the development of the right mix of leaders that the Air Force needs at the general ranks.

For young officers: Think stars are in your future? Get intentional about securing a sponsor… now.

Caitlin Thorn is an acquisitions officer in the United States Air Force. She is currently a student at Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell AFB, Alabama.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US government.

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