Sponsors are Critical to Inclusive Culture

As a business leader, are you actively sponsoring (vs. mentoring) diverse talent in your organization? If not, here are the reasons it’s critical inclusive culture.

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Two hands holding two cups of coffee across a table.

My first experience having a sponsor came 30 years before I even knew the difference between a mentor and a sponsor. My high school journalism teacher Mr. Ketcham energetically advocated for me to become Editor-in-Chief of Panther Prints, our school newspaper. He nominated me for a competitive scholarship to go to the National Press Club in Washington, DC. He opened doors for internships at the city paper and local ABC News affiliate. One of the proudest days of my life was when I told him that I got a job with the digital division of the New York Times.

For those of you not familiar with the difference, a mentor provides career advice, support, and coaching—of which Mr. Ketcham did plenty. A sponsor is a senior level person who has invested in your career success and actively uses their influence and networks to connect you to high-profile assignments, people, pay increases, and promotions. Both mentors and sponsors matter; yet, research from Catalyst shows mentorship does not lead to advancement. Sponsors are the key.

The challenge is that senior leaders don’t always know what being a sponsor actually entails. According to research from the Center for Talent Innovation, there are three roles that sponsors play: to believe in and go out on a limb for their protégé; to use their organizational capital to push for their protégé’s promotion; and to provide their protégé with “air cover” for risk-taking. This means shielding the protégé from critics and naysayers as they explore out-of-the box ideas and work on stretch assignments. In a survey, only 27% of leaders say they advocate for their protégé’s promotion. Only 19% said they provided air cover.

Sponsors also suffer from what the researchers call “Mini-Me” syndrome, or a tendency to select protégés that remind them of themselves. 71% of leaders said their proteges were the same gender or race that they were. This affinity bias—compounded by the demographic reality of the C-Suite in most companies—is a significant roadblock to building more diverse executive teams.

I have been fortunate to have gained several great sponsors since high school. Some, like Mr. Ketcham, are men. Some are women. Without a doubt, I am a founder and CEO today because of them, including two who were catalytic in the founding of WeSpire. 

As companies grapple with the urgency of creating more gender and racial equity, I see a lot of responses emphasizing mentoring. But, to drive desired outcomes, we need to place more time and attention on sponsorship.

So, if you are a leader, think about who you mentor. Should you be actively sponsoring them instead? (Note: The answer is usually “yes” if they are in your own organization.) Do you know what that entails? If not, sit down with your HR or leadership team and figure out how you can advocate for and champion this person’s advancement. Read more about what sponsorship looks like. Have a deliberate conversation about what doors this person needs opened or what role they most want in the next 12 months.

Now ask yourself the tougher question: do they look like you? It’s not a bad thing if they do—all talented people deserve a sponsor. But, if they do, consider it a wake-up call to find someone different from the prevailing make-up of your leadership team for you to sponsor as well.

The good news is that sponsorship brings dividends to the sponsor. Sponsors are more satisfied with their own advancement, more engaged at work, and more likely to deliver on “mission-impossible” projects. Sponsoring someone who is not already in the majority can also be your personal pathway to contribute to a better, more just, and more equal working world.

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