Diversity and inclusion

What are sponsorship programs in the workplace?

Sponsorship programs are an effective way to level the playing field and unlock hidden talent in your organization. Here's how you can get started building a sponsorship program by matching leaders with emerging talent.

Muinat Zubair

Published on 

May 3, 2022

Updated on 

Time to Read

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Research has shown that mentorship and having influential sponsors are important for career advancement in organizations. 

Sponsored employees earn 11.6% more than their colleagues. This is based on recent research conducted by PayScale. However, an interesting point to highlight is that for men, the sponsorship rate is higher at 12.3 percent compared to women at 10.2 percent. 

Further, identifying high-performing employees suitable for leadership positions improves retention and boosts a company’s productivity. This, in turn, improves profit, employer branding and attractiveness to potential hires.  

This article provides a broad overview of what sponsorship programs in the workplace are, why they are important, their benefits to organizations, and how to get started with your own sponsorship program.

What are sponsorship programs?

Sponsorship programs connect leaders across the company with high potential employees to accelerate their career development. Essentially, it’s a formal program where executives “go to bat” for an employee. Sponsorship programs usually focus on helping employees from underrepresented backgrounds. This contrasts with high potential programs that groom exceptional employees for leadership positions. They are similar, but different. 

What is a sponsor's role?

Sponsors play an active role in facilitating their protege’s career advancement. Sponsors not only invest in their protege’s professional development but also advocate for them at the table, using their reputation and personal brand to drive their growth. 

In sponsorship programs, an executive sponsors underrepresented employees by opening doors for them, connecting them with influential people, or assigning them to high-profile projects. But they aren’t just an agent. They also provide mentorship and coaching to help them grow the skills they need to advance. There are key differences between mentorship and sponsorship, but they both focus on fast-tracking an employee’s growth.

A sponsor’s ability to provide clarity of purpose and nurture talents makes them valuable assets in an employee’s search for career growth.

Why is it important to sponsor employees from diverse backgrounds?

Some may argue that sponsorship programs are formalizing favouritism. This is untrue. It’s actually a way to level the playing field.

It’s no secret that non-male employees and employees of colour face significantly more barriers to advancement than their white and male colleagues. Prejudice, discrimination, bias, and stereotypes are all common barriers to workplace diversity

Jennifer Petrela, a mentoring expert that helps companies attract, integrate and retain a greater number of women through the power of mentorship explains how leaders from positions of privilege can help underrepresented talent advance their careers.

Watch the full conversation with Jennifer as she discusses "Inclusive Mentoring: how to connect more women with mentors in male-dominated workplaces."

Creating a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion and belonging (DEIB) isn’t just about recruiting people from diverse backgrounds. It’s about setting them up for success in their careers and roles. Sponsorship programs do just that. 

Sponsorships are important in closing the gender inequality gap. According to the pipeline’s women count 2020, organizations with no women in executive positions have a net profit margin of 1.5%, whereas those with over 33% women at high levels have a 15.2% net profit margin. Sponsorship programs are a fast way to get more diversity in leadership positions.

How do sponsorship programs benefit the organization?

Sponsorship programs might seem like a one-way street where only the recipients of sponsorship and their sponsors benefit. But this isn’t the case. Organizations have a lot to gain from starting sponsorship programs.

Sponsorship is focused on longer-term growth and thus has numerous benefits. The Catalyst report revealed that sponsorship programs produced more effective leaders and teams in the workplace. There was also an increase in job satisfaction, employee retention, and overall commitment to the organization. From this, we can gather that sponsorship programs strengthen talent, improve engagement and company culture. 

How to start an employee sponsorship program

Before you start your sponsorship program, review the overall talent strategy you already have in place. What is working, and what needs to be improved or changed? How can you include sponsorship in your strategy, and who will benefit from it? Sponsorship lays the foundation for stronger career advancement for high-performing employees with potential for senior-level roles. Here are some points to note on starting an employee sponsorship program.

Identify high potential employees from underrepresented backgrounds

Organizations that use sponsorship programs to drive women's advancement to leadership positions have helped establish greater gender diversity at senior levels. Companies headed by women have an average ratio of 2:1 for men to women at top levels in the FTSE 350. This is an improvement on the average 4:1 for companies led by men.

Show leaders how they benefit from participating

By participating in sponsorship programs, sponsors gain an understanding of the different levels of the business they may not be ordinarily exposed to. They also receive actionable feedback and are exposed to varying perspectives, making them better leaders. Additionally, successful sponsors are held in high regard within their organization because of their commitment to identifying and developing talented employees. 

Make match-making relevant

Any successful mentorship program is built on trust. Sponsorship programs can fail if senior executives feel they are being forced to vouch for someone they don’t know or really believe in. Proteges might also harbour the fear of trying to know if their interests will be well addressed or if the sponsors want them to succeed. Asking sponsors and proteges what their goals and preferences are and who they would like to work with makes the match-making process relevant and effective. You can automate the process using Together, which makes it easy for employees to develop strong connections at work

Provide pairs with a roadmap for success

Your goal as an organization doesn’t end at pairing. You should arm sponsors and proteges with the tools and resources they need to perform their roles well. Senior leaders already have a lot of responsibilities so equipping them with extra resources such as coaching advice makes their role easier. Proteges also need to know what’s expected of them and how they are to work with their sponsor.

Take your sponsorship program to the next level with mentorship

Moving up the corporate ladder can be hard without the right people or resources, especially for people from underrepresented backgrounds. With Together, you can help them achieve their career advancement goals by matching them with the right mentors based on their preferences. Improve your diversity program with mentorship using Together. 

Advance underrepresented leaders and create a diverse space where everyone can strive regardless of their background. Together's software helps companies run internal employee mentoring programs at scale, from registration to reporting. Our software ensures that every employee is matched with the best peer, mentor, or expert to learn from.

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