How to be a great sponsor

As a senior leader, you have been asked to be a sponsor for a high-potential employee your company is seeking to develop and retain as part of its diversity-and-inclusion efforts. You agree, because you believe retaining underrepresented talent is important. And you are always willing to help young talent succeed, anyway; it’s the fun part of your job. You probably already sponsor a few people, but being assigned someone to sponsor is different. You may know the employee’s reputation, but you don’t know anything regarding his or her real strengths and limitations or ambitions.

Let’s say the sponsored employee is two levels below you. She reports to one of your peers in another area of the business. At your first meeting, she’d asked about the company’s China strategy, which is your area of expertise, and then about how she should deal with a direct report who isn’t pulling his weight on her team.

Afterward, as you reflect on the meeting, you may feel you didn’t add a lot of value, because you’d already covered the China strategy in the company’s town hall meetings, and the issue about team dynamics requires the involvement of her direct boss. You postpone your next scheduled meeting with her because more pressing issues have come up. You want to help, but you are not sure how in this particular case.

Sponsorship is a powerful tool in the inclusion agenda. The problem here is that assigned sponsorship isn’t the same as earned sponsorship or the sponsorship of someone a leader already knows. But when sponsors understand the uniqueness of an assigned sponsorship and its potential impact, they can be powerful allies.

A taxonomy of sages and allies

Sponsors are just one of five distinct types of guidance roles that are available in many corporations. (The others are managers, advisors, mentors, and advocates.) A manager gives advice and, ideally, support, but his or her main concern is the functioning of the unit rather than the development of any individual. An advisor is a wise and approachable person who gives advice on an infrequent, ad hoc basis. A mentor truly cares about his or her mentee’s career development and is therefore willing to make a commitment to the role for a period of months or years. And an advocate knows the quality of an individual’s work and will speak positively about that person whenever and wherever he or she is called upon to do so.

Sponsorship is a step beyond advocacy. A relationship with a sponsor positions an employee as more of a protégé. The sponsor’s reputation is ultimately strengthened or diminished based on the success of the employee he or she takes on. Typically, a leader has two, maybe three sponsorees and may work with those people for years. Many corporations have some sort of assigned sponsorship program for women and for other underrepresented groups. If handled well, the sponsorships help up-and-coming managers learn the intangibles of leadership.

Building a valuable relationship

The potential benefits of working with a sponsor are huge — not only career advice but also involvement in new projects and a vastly expanded network. But as much as we train sponsored employees on how to conduct their end of the relationship, the sponsor is often less aware of how to build a relationship that will be successful on both sides.

When sponsors understand the uniqueness of an assigned sponsorship and its potential impact, they can be powerful allies.

As the sponsor, you can set the tone. If you are open about the topics you are willing to discuss, the ways in which you can help, and what you want to know about the sponsored employee, you can help him or her to better understand the ground rules and be less nervous.

Here are a few ways you can add value as a sponsor in an assigned program.

Let the employee know that you can serve as a thinking partner for navigating the organization — for example, when he or she wants to pitch a new idea, drive an important change, or strengthen his or her personal brand.

Boost the opportunity for mobility within the organization by raising the sponsored employee’s visibility, particularly within your larger network, and help him or her know how to approach each conversation with a new contact.

Identify broadening opportunities that will take a sponsored employee out of the comfort zone of his or her expertise track — say, in technology, finance, or marketing — and into what I call a spanning level, across multiple areas of knowledge. And help the employee think at a different level or from a different perspective to make the exercise a success. For example, you can provide coaching on how to be more transformational, inspirational, and strategic, or even more savvy about the organization’s political dynamics.

Advocate for the sponsoree when you feel he or she is ready for a position in another part of the organization. And if you think she or he isn’t ready, be honest about why. That feedback is what is often most critical for career progress.

Talk about experiences the employee will need to be a credible candidate for a much more senior position in five or even 10 years. Help him or her to see the types of sideways moves that can pay off in the long term.

Ask for the sponsoree’s help. Often this can give you a different perspective than you hear from your immediate circle.

Gently inquire about the employee’s experience in the organization. It will help you gain awareness and know-how from someone who is not like you and see better ways to build an inclusive culture.

Making sponsorship work

I’ve found that in companies that are dissatisfied with their sponsorship programs, there’s often a poor understanding of what is required for success. Sponsors need clarity on what is expected of them, particularly when the sponsorship is assigned. Is the intent to improve promotion-readiness, increase promotion rates, create sideways movement through the company, or increase visibility? How will the sponsor know if progress is being made? There should be clarity on the frequency of meetings, how long the relationship will last, and how feedback will be reviewed with the sponsored employee’s manager.

The most well-crafted sponsorship programs don’t always generate the strongest sponsorship results. Sponsorship is ultimately an earned relationship, and like any relationship, it must grow organically over time, drawing on positive energy from both sponsor and sponsoree. The positive energy that feeds the best relationships is the result not of serendipity or the right blend of personalities, but of the thought and continued effort that both sides put into it.