What Great Sponsors Do Differently

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Companies across a range of industries as well as professional-services firms have been betting on sponsorship initiatives to improve the career advancement of their diverse hires. Unlike mentors who offer moral support or coaching, sponsors spend their own political capital to advance more junior sponsees, through advocacy and other tactical moves.

Typical company programs pair senior leaders with sponsees in a kind of “arranged marriage” with little more than a one-pager or, in the best of cases, an hour of training. As these programs grow in popularity, aspiring sponsors need more practical guidance about what to do beyond the first meeting.

This is something we’ve thought about a lot. One of us (Herminia) is an authority on career development and has been researching sponsorship dynamics for over a decade; the other (Rachel) works with organizations globally to advise, build, and deliver sponsorship programs. Recently, we’ve been listening to sponsors and sponsees across dozens of companies tell us what works and what misses the mark in these relationships, and we’ve distilled what we heard from them into six things that great sponsors do.

1. They show up.

Great sponsors consistently attend their meetings with sponsees. Chronic rescheduling sends a message, however unintended, that the relationship isn’t a priority. Sponsees from underrepresented groups that already face barriers to belonging can question the sponsor’s sincerity and pull back.

If you do have to reschedule a session with your sponsee, send a personal note to explain why. If you’ve been asked to be a sponsor, and know that making time will be an issue, discuss it upfront before agreeing to match and be clear about what you do and don’t have time for. For example, you may not be the right person for longer mentoring conversations, but you might be able to quickly put your network to work for your sponsee.

2. They’re patient and withhold judgement.

Some sponsees know exactly what they’d like to get out of a sponsorship relationship. Others lack clarity about their wishes for advancement or don’t yet feel ready for a next step. Many sponsors have a hard time figuring out how to support the latter, either because they don’t know how to help or because they interpret the absence of a clearly stated ambition as a lack of drive and potential.

One sponsor we worked with, for example, was known as a “kingmaker.” He’d ask sponsees assigned to him “What is your dream?” and then would do everything in his power to make it happen. He had sponsored some of the most senior women in his firm into their current roles, but when he was assigned a highly talented sponsee who wasn’t sure what she wanted to do next, he was stumped — and frustrated. Unbeknownst to him, she was pregnant and feeling exhausted after the pandemic period. The timing wasn’t right for her to put herself out. After a conversation with one of his peers, he resolved to go against his own nature and simply build a relationship with her, without a goal in mind. That paid off. Seven months later, by her own admission, she was “back in the game” with a development plan that he was able to back.

Great sponsors move beyond transactional conversations (“Where do you want to be a year from now?”) to invest in authentic connections with their sponsees. They don’t interpret the absence of a target role as a bellwether of a sponsee’s potential, and they don’t withdraw if a sponsee needs time to formulate next steps. They help nudge them forward, reassuring sponsees that they will stand shoulder to shoulder with them as they step into an uncertain space. They understand that the very conditions that make sponsorship programs necessary — such as the absence of a development culture or bias that keeps members of underrepresented groups stagnant in role — may also partly explain why their sponsee lacks a clear development plan.

3. They act outside the one-on-one meetings with their sponsees.

Great sponsors take a tactical approach to converting a sponsee’s desire for growth into practical steps forward. They understand that advancement to a senior level is a team sport, a process that requires buy-in from multiple stakeholders. Among their first moves are making warm introductions of sponsees to relevant people in their network; meeting with their sponsee’s manager to better understand possibilities for growth; and saying their sponsee’s name when they are not in the room. Once they have gauged their sponsees’ capabilities and developmental needs, they think expansively about ways to advance them within their role and recognize that even small actions can catalyze big change.

We have seen sponsors share their own personal development plans with a sponsee, line edit end-of-year performance summaries, vet internal job offers, ask sponsees to shadow them at C-level meetings, find a sponsee an executive coach, help a sponsee write a business case for a new role, invite a sponsee to join them on trips to visit new markets, and identify emerging opportunities that are not visible to the sponsee.

4. They seek out relevant information, transparently.

Often sponsors feel they don’t have the information they need to come to their own conclusion about their sponsees’ potential, especially when they work in a different organizational unit and don’t have much visibility into their sponsee’s performance. In this case they wonder: Should I ask my sponsees to share their 360 feedback? Should I have a conversation with their manager?

 These are great questions, and there is no uniform answer to them. Sometimes your sponsee’s manager can be your best ally in helping your sponsee make progress. Sometimes their boss is part of the problem. Before you bring in others to the process, it’s important to get your sponsee’s permission. Be transparent about what information you’d like to have (and from whom), get their go ahead to do so, and if, you hit resistance, discuss alternative ways of getting what you need.

5. They offer feedback and provide psychological safety.

Great sponsors recognize members of underrepresented groups are often cut off from both specific praise and detailed, developmental feedback. They are candid, telling sponsees where they stand and how they are perceived, without the “protective hesitation” that so often deprives minorities of vital feedback. For example, we have seen sponsors tell sponsees their assessment of their performance is not aligned with their manager’s; that they need to rebuild their network following a controversial manager’s departure; and that they should focus on impression management with leaders. In these moments, sponsors function as a bridge that allows critical information to flow to the sponsee.

At the same time, great sponsors understand that sponsees from underrepresented groups face additional scrutiny when they disclose blind spots or areas of desired growth, or when they hesitate to articulate desired next steps. They work to create welcoming spaces where sponsees can express both ambition and self-doubt, and where perfection is not the measure of worth. Some set the tone by telling their own unvarnished stories. One sponsor we know narrated his career journey by explicitly including mistakes he made along the way. His message: Missteps are a feature, not a bug, of a career path. Go ahead and share yours, too.

6. They talk to each other about sponsorship.

It’s one thing for you to help a sponsee along personally; it’s another to help build a culture of sponsorship in your organization. At two organizations we worked with, an unexpected, positive side effect of putting in a sponsoring initiative was the space it created for the sponsors — in one case the equity partners, in the other the senior leadership team — to talk to each other about what they were doing and should be doing, to share their honest reservations about certain facets of the program, and to brainstorm ways they could work more productively together to advance their firm’s diversity goals. In one of those firms, the sponsees specifically requested that the sponsors talk to each other, knowing that siloed communication and insular networks were getting in the way of unearthing more opportunities for their development.

At another company, sponsors transformed talent conversations about women. Before the sponsorship program began, a senior woman told us, “I never heard women talked about. It was like they didn’t exist. Now the sponsors are showcasing their female proteges. We are having much richer conversations about women.”

. . .

Sponsors leverage a vibrant mix of connection and action to advance high performers into leadership. Done right, sponsorship can help companies deliver on recruitment and hiring investments. With authentic connection the fundamental, animating force of these relationships, presence, candor, and psychological safety will make all the difference.

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