Companies in various industries as well as professional service companies are betting on sponsorship initiatives to promote the career development of their various hires. Unlike teachers who offer moral support or coaching, sponsors spend their own political capital to advance more junior sponsees, through advocacy and other tactical measures.
Typical company programs pair senior leaders with spouses in a sort of “arranged marriage” with little more than a one-pager or, in the best cases, an hour of training. As these programs grow in popularity, prospective sponsors need more practical guidance on what to do beyond the first meeting.
It’s something we think about a lot. One of us (Herminia) is an authority on career development and has been researching sponsorship dynamics for over a decade; another (Rachel) works with organizations around the world to advise, build, and deliver sponsorship programs. Recently, we’ve been listening to sponsors and sponsees of several companies tell us what works and what doesn’t make the mark in these relationships, and we’ve distilled what we’ve heard from them into six something that great sponsors do.
1. They show up.
Great sponsors always attend their sponsor meetings. Frequent rescheduling sends a message, even if unintentional, that the relationship is not a priority. Sponsors from underrepresented groups who already face barriers to membership may doubt the sponsor’s sincerity and withdraw.
If you need to reschedule a session with your sponsee, send a personal note to explain why. If you are asked to be a sponsor, and know that making time will be an issue, discuss it up front before agreeing to match and be clear about what you are doing and not having time for. For example, you may not be the right person for longer mentoring conversations, but you can easily use your network to work for your sponsee.
2. They are patient and withhold judgment.
Some sponsors know exactly what they want to get out of a sponsorship relationship. Others lack clarity about their aspirations for advancement or don’t feel ready for the next step. Many sponsors find it difficult to think how to support the latter, because they do not know how to help or because they interpret the absence of a clearly stated ambition as a lack of drive and potential.
One promoter we worked with, for example, was known as a “kingmaker.” He will ask the sponses assigned to him “What is your dream?” and then do everything in his power to make it happen. She sponsors some of the most senior women in her company in their current roles, but when she is assigned a very talented sponsee who is unsure of what she wants to do next, she fails. – and disappointed. Unbeknownst to her, she was pregnant and feeling tired after the pandemic period. The time was not right for him to release himself. After a conversation with one of his peers, he decided to go against his own behavior and make a relationship with him, without any goal in mind. That paid off. Seven months later, by his own admission, he was “back in the game” with a development plan that he could turn around.
Great sponsors move beyond transactional conversations (“Where do you want to be a year from now?”) to invest in real connections with their sponsors. They don’t interpret the loss of a target role as a bellwether of a sponsee’s potential, and they don’t back down when a sponsee needs time to take next steps. They help push them forward, assuring the sponses that they will stand shoulder to shoulder with them as they enter an uncertain space. They understand that the very conditions that make sponsorship programs necessary – such as the absence of a culture of progress or prejudice that keeps members of underrepresented groups underachieving – can also explain in part why their sponsee lacks a clear development plan.
3. They operate outside of individual meetings with their sponsees.
Great sponsors take a tactical approach to turning a sponsee’s desire for growth into practical steps forward. They understand that progressing to a senior level is a team sport, a process that requires buy-in from multiple stakeholders. Among their first steps is to make warm introductions of sponsees to relevant people in their network; meet with their sponsee’s manager to better understand growth possibilities; and say their sponsee’s name if they are not in the room. Once they have measured the capabilities and development needs of their employees, they think carefully about ways to improve them within their role and recognize that even small actions can make a big difference.
We’ve seen sponsors share their own personal development plans with a sponsee, line edit year-end performance summaries, vet internal job offers, ask sponses to shadow them in 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 unseen by the sponsee.
4. They seek relevant information, in an obvious way.
Often sponsors feel they don’t have the information they need to reach their own conclusions about their sponsee’s potential, especially if they work in a different organizational unit and don’t see much of their sponsee’s performance. In this case they are thinking: Should I ask my sponses to share their 360 feedback? Should I talk to their manager?
These are great questions, and there is no single answer to them. Sometimes your sponsee’s manager can be your best ally in helping your sponsee improve. Sometimes their boss is part of the problem. Before you bring others into the process, it is important to get your sponsee’s consent. Be transparent about what information you want to get (and from whom), keep doing it, 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 often cut off from specific praise and detailed, developmental feedback. They are forthright, telling respondents where they stand and how they are perceived, without the “protective reluctance” that often deprives minorities of valuable feedback. For example, we have seen sponsors tell respondents that their performance appraisals did not match their manager’s; that they had to rebuild their network after the departure of a controversial manager; and that they should focus on impression management with leaders. In these moments, sponsors act as a bridge that allows critical information to flow to the sponsee.
At the same time, prominent sponsors understand that sponsors from underrepresented groups face increased scrutiny when they reveal blind spots or areas of desired growth, or when they hesitate. to state the desired next steps. They work to create welcoming spaces where spouses can express ambition and self-doubt, and where perfection is not the standard of value. Others set the tone by telling their own unvarnished stories. One sponsor we know recounts his career journey by openly including the mistakes he made along the way. His message: Missteps are a part, not a bug, of a career path. Go ahead and share yours.
6. They talked about sponsorship.
It’s one thing for you to help a sponsee personally; it’s another to help build a culture of sponsorship in your organization. In two organizations we worked with, an unexpected, positive effect of putting in place a sponsorship initiative was the space it created for sponsors – in one case the equity partners, in the other the senior leadership team – to talk to each other about what they are doing and need to do, to share their honest reservations about certain parts of the program, and to brainstorm ways they can work together that are more productive together to advance their diversity goals. In one of the companies, the sponsors specifically requested that the sponsors talk to each other, knowing that the siled communication and insular networks hindered the digging of many opportunities for their development.
At another company, sponsors are changing talent conversations about women. Before the sponsorship program started, a senior woman told us, “I have never heard of women being talked about. It’s like they don’t exist. Now the sponsors show their female protégés. We have a lot more conversations about women. “
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Sponsors use a passionate mix of connection and action to develop high performers into leadership. In the right way, sponsorship can help companies deliver recruiting and hiring investments. With true connection the fundamental, motivating force of these relationships, presence, frankness, and psychological safety can make all the difference.