Two pioneers of diversity research, Robin Ely and David Thomas, are clear that organisations which recruit people from diverse backgrounds won’t automatically benefit. This “add diversity and stir” approach, they write, while continuing business-as-usual, doesn’t really change a company’s effectiveness or financial performance. For D&I programs to have real impact, and to create a culture of belonging, “what matters is how an organisation harnesses diversity, and whether it’s willing to reshape its power structure.” This means organisations need under-represented staff to be set up for success. And sponsorship programs help do that.

Sponsorship can be defined as a helping relationship in which senior powerful people in an organisation use their personal clout to talk up, advocate for, and place a more junior person in a key role. And sponsorship programs help overcome the biases that keeps members of diverse groups stagnant and less visible within their roles.

Sponsorship vs mentoring: what’s the difference?

The key difference between sponsorship and mentoring is the personal commitment a leader makes. In short, mentors are advisers, whereas sponsors are advocates.

In a mentoring relationship, mentors share their knowledge, perspective and experience, often challenging less-experienced mentees to move outside their comfort zone and try new behaviours to achieve specific career-related goals. With mentoring, the mentee drives the agenda; uses their mentor as a sounding board to address challenges and doubts, and to help build their technical, interpersonal and leadership skills; and is responsible for achieving the goals they’ve set.

In a sponsorship arrangement, however, the sponsor accepts responsibility for the promotion of their sponsee. The sponsor identifies what’s needed for the sponsee’s career advancement, and provides guidance to help the sponsee achieve those results. Not only do sponsors give feedback and advice, they also use their influence and networks with senior executives to advocate for their sponsee behind closed doors. Sponsorship is predicated on power – the sponsor needs to be in a position to speak up for their sponsee with other decisionmakers, and to promote the sponsee’s strengths, achievements and value to the organisation.


How sponsorship creates a culture of D&I

This influence and power that sponsors wield is the key to how sponsorship contributes to a diverse, inclusive culture: sponsors are instrumental in helping employees from under-represented groups to be promoted to senior positions, appointed to crucial projects, and allocated to key clients.

Aside from helping to give women and minorities access to the same opportunities as others (typically, white males), sponsorship also helps drive D&I in more subtle ways. Organisations which set up a sponsorship program send a message to all staff that leaders are actively engaged in, and supportive of, the creation of a more equitable workplace.

In addition, when sponsees tell sponsors what it’s really like for them at work, sponsors develop insights into unconscious bias and how it operates in the company. This helps create awareness of the obstacles faced by minority groups, which can help sponsors become voices for change, in turn increasing organisational support for diverse employee groups. For example, sponsorship experts Ibarra and Simmons write that sponsors at one organisation transformed talent conversations about women. Before the sponsorship program started, one woman said that she never heard women being talked about; it was like they didn’t exist. “Now,” she says, “the sponsors are showcasing their female protégés. We are having much richer conversations about women.”

And, the saying that “you can’t be what you can’t see” holds true: there’s evidence that increasing female and minority representation in top leadership positions will increase female and minority representation throughout an organisation.

Sponsors can also change other people’s perceptions of their protégé. This is vital for women and minority employees, who are more likely to be criticised for their leadership styles (too analytical/too emotional/too bossy/not assertive enough). When such criticisms are lobbied, it’s vital for female leaders and leaders of colour to have people willing to sponsor them by defending them to others.

It’s for these reasons that sponsorship is emerging as a powerful tool for increasing diversity in organisations’ executive teams, as reflected in the title of a 2020 Harvard Business Review article: “Want More Diverse Senior Leadership? Sponsor Junior Talent.”. The authors write that “as the sense of urgency grows for better diversity, racial equity and inclusion outcomes, companies are being challenged to figure out what works. A robust approach to sponsorship, while far from being a magic bullet, offers a tangible roadmap towards real progress.”

Sponsorship helps give those who have traditionally been marginalised a voice, and visibility. But the way an organisation sets up a sponsorship initiative can make all the difference between one that fails, and one that gets results. In our next article, we’ll look at best practices for setting up sponsorship programs to maximise success.