Mentoring and sponsorship.

One way to actively enhance the career development of underrepresented groups in your organization is to introduce mentoring and sponsorship programs. Let’s first examine what mentorship and sponsorship are and how they differ.

Mentorship is the practice of advising, counseling, and guiding employees (Dessler, 2020). Sponsorship, on the other hand, is the kind of helping relationship in which senior, influential people use their clout (i.e., their power and influence) to talk up, advocate for, and place a more junior person in a critical role (Ibarra, 2019).

Mentoring programs are helpful in these cases:

  • During the onboarding or employee orientation program of new employees.
  • For general support in the development of employees.
  • As part of an equal employment opportunity program, a young potential program, etc.
  • As support when employees tackle new projects or jobs.
  • For on-the-job learning of practical skills.

Sponsorship usually comes in when the goal is to achieve career progression (in the broad sense).

  • Advantages of implementing mentorship and sponsorship program.

Mentorship programs can offer these advantages:

  • Mentoring is associated with lower employee turnover (mainly voluntary) and higher retention of underrepresented groups and women.
  • A mentorship program can provide social or emotional support in the workplace. Mentors often take up an advisory role, but a mentor can also be a role model for the mentee. If the mentor is, for example, also from an underrepresented group, this can make the mentee feel understood more and make the advice more authentic.
  • The program can empower the mentee and increase their personal and professional development.
  • Mentorship can help grow the networks of mentees and can improve their understanding of the organization and the industry they work in.
  • It does not cost the company much to implement a mentorship program as they use their resources.

Even if the mentorship goes well and all parties commit, it does not always lead to promotions or career progression of underrepresented groups such as female employees. Why? Because not all mentors can actively influence a company to help with the career advancement of mentees. 

So next to offering mentoring, it might be good also to set up a sponsorship program. Consequently, the sponsor will deliberately and actively help the more junior person advance in their career. A sponsor has the power to change something in the career of the more junior person. It is advisable to hold sponsors accountable to check if they meet their goals. Possibly set KPIs involving a bonus for sponsors.

Whereas the role of a mentor is more advisory, a sponsor may risk their reputation by recommending the more junior employee, and the sponsor will use their influence to help the employee receive chances that might not have been accessible to them.

Examples of sponsorship activities are recommending the more junior person for projects, coaching them, suggesting them as speakers at events, nominating them for promotions, advocating for them during meetings, creating opportunities for networking, etc.

Action: Setting up a mentoring or sponsorship program.

1. Think about the goals and expectations of a mentor- or sponsorship program in your organization. What do you want to get out of this? Make sure you set clear objectives you can evaluate afterward.

2. Communicate those expectations to potential sponsors and mentors so they can clearly understand the role. Communicate the importance and the value of mentorship and sponsorship in your organization. Ensure all employees are aware of these programs and have access to them if applicable.

3. Carefully choose who you appoint as a mentor or sponsor. Some essential characteristics of a mentor or sponsor are:

  • Being communicative.
  • Willing to invest time and energy into helping others.
  • Having insight and experience into how an industry or organization works.
  • For mentors, it is a plus to be open, empathetic, a good listener, and a person that can motivate others. In addition, select mentors for their content expertise and ability to provide advice. Mentors can work at any level in the organization.
  • Sponsors should have some power/influence in an organization or industry. Sponsors can, for example, impact decisions regarding leadership, promotions, etc. In addition, sponsors should provide access to networks and opportunities for career advancement.

4. Set up a first meeting between the two people involved in the program. Let them get to know each other and discuss the mutual expectations (concerning interaction, ways, frequency of communication, and outcomes) of the mentoring or sponsoring program.  

5. During the mentoring process, a mentor should think about sharing their expertise with the mentee regarding the culture and how they approach work, relations, projects, etc. During the sponsoring process, a sponsor should determine the strategy of how to help the person being sponsored. For example, the sponsor should consider opportunities to introduce the person in meetings, events, projects, career opportunities, etc. What will be discussed and done during the process depends on the expectations and the program’s goals.

6. Continuously coach the mentors and sponsors on how to fulfill that role if necessary. Additionally, ensure management is involved and that all parties stay on track during the program.

7. Evaluate the mentorship and sponsorship program. Check how satisfied all parties are with the program and what the program results are in the short and long term (e.g., career advancement, extra opportunities, etc.).

An example of a successful sponsorship.

Australia established a sponsorship program to increase gender diversity in companies’ boards of directors. In March 2010, the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) implemented a combined mentorship and sponsorship program. As a result, 63 women qualified for the program (through attending a course or their experience), and 56 chairpersons signed up. These chairs agreed not only to mentor the candidate but, after a year, to help place their female mentee on the board of a publicly held corporation.

In the first year, female directors on Australian corporate boards increased from 2% to 10.4%. However, when continuing the program, the proportion of female directors in publicly held Australian corporations increased from 8% to 20.1% in the following years.

Douglas M. Branson describes this example in the book “The future of tech is female – How to achieve gender diversity” by Douglas M. Branson.

Extra resources on sponsorship.

  • Podcast with Herminia Ibarra (professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD) about the need to sponsor women.
  • Video by Credit Suisse on the importance of sponsoring.
  • Article on a sponsorship program by ATOS: New Atos Sponsorship Program to support BAME employees – Atos.

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