How to start a formal sponsorship program

Written by
Femme Palette
Published on
January 6, 2023

Does your company have a sponsorship program? Sponsorship has a number of benefits for employees, and while many such relationships form spontaneously, actively setting up a formal sponsorship program is a great way to individually target talent development. 

What is sponsorship in the workplace? How can it benefit underrepresented groups and boost your DEI and talent development strategies? How is it connected to mentorship and how can mentorship help you build a sponsorship culture? And what steps should you take while setting up a formal sponsorship program in your company? Let’s take a look at what you need to know about sponsorship.

Who is a sponsor?

A sponsor in the sense of career development is typically someone in a senior position within a company who takes on a protégé in a junior position. The role of the sponsor is to expand their protégé’s visibility in the company and expose them to opportunities which could be beneficial for their career development. Being a sponsor isn’t simply about praising your protégé in front of management, but actively advocating for them to be involved in projects, considered for new roles, or finding ways to make their good work more visible.

Who is a sponsee?

In a sponsorship, the protégé of the sponsor can also be called the sponsee. A sponsee is typically someone in a more junior role who still has a large portion of their career ahead of them. Through having a sponsor, the sponsee can gain better visibility within the company or receive access to interesting opportunities for their career growth. The aim of a formal sponsorship program might be to select sponsees from diverse or underrepresented backgrounds to promote inclusion.

How a sponsorship program works

When the employer gets actively involved in encouraging sponsorship in the workplace, formal sponsorship programs come into the picture. The difference between a sponsorship program and simply having a protégé is that it is a formal program endorsed by the employer. If an employer wishes to formally set up sponsor-sponsee relationships, they must ensure that both sides are all-in and actively interested in benefiting from the relationship. The sponsor and sponsee must establish a genuine connection where the sponsor truly believes in the potential of the sponsee, and vice versa, the sponsee trusts the sponsor. 

Depending on the structure of the formal sponsorship program, the sponsor and sponsee can choose to meet as regularly as they deem appropriate, and the sponsor can also choose to include the sponsee in activities and events outside of the formal meetings.

Why is sponsorship important?

Having sponsors support your employees has a number of benefits. To name a few benefits of sponsorship:

It provides visibility to talented employees

Talent can go unnoticed or be easily dismissed if the person in question doesn’t enjoy enough visibility within the organization. Having a more senior, powerful colleague as their sponsor can help talented employees get mentioned in front of management, get invited to participate on more projects, and more.

It promotes underrepresented group members

Women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ employees or people with disabilities still face the barrier of unconscious bias in the workplace. This can prevent them from having their voice heard and their ideas taken into account. As someone with the power to bring them to the decision-making table, a sponsor can help underrepresented groups break down these barriers, thus creating a more inclusive workplace.

It gives the sponsors a sense of purpose

Successful people often mention that when they have “made it”, they feel like giving back and supporting junior coworkers whose shoes they were once in. Being a sponsor or a mentor gives a person a sense of purpose as they can use their hard-earned position to make an impact.

It promotes passing on of know-how

Passing on knowledge and experience to a new generation of future leaders is crucial in any company. Problems can occur in a company where there’s lack of communication between the current power holders and their junior coworkers. By connecting these generations through a sponsorship program or an internal mentoring program, current and future leaders can have valuable conversations including passing on the company know-how and important learnings for the future.

What is the difference between sponsorship and mentorship?

The practices of mentorship and sponsorship share a number of similarities, but also a few differences. The similarity lies mainly in the fact that both mentorship and sponsorship involve a more experienced, more senior, typically older (with an exception of reverse mentorship) professional being connected with someone less experienced, less senior, and typically younger to support them in their career growth. 

An explanation in Harvard Business Review fittingly describes sponsorship as phase two of mentorship. If we view mentorship as phase one, it involves the mentor sharing their knowledge and experience to help the mentee better navigate their career challenges. It’s a double-sided relationship where the mentee actively seeks out the help of the mentor by asking them questions. However, during the mentoring relationship, a second phase may occur where the mentor notices true potential in the mentee and decides to actively endorse them using their position of seniority. Thus, a sponsorship begins.

How sponsorship helps women

As was mentioned before, unconscious bias and discrimination can make workplaces difficult to navigate for women, even today. According to research conducted by MIT associate professor Danielle Li, women receive higher performance ratings as employees, but lower ratings on potential than their male colleagues. As a result, women are 14% less likely to get promoted as promotions are strongly influenced by potential ratings. 

It’s therefore understandable that in some cases, having a sponsor can be a career-changing experience for women. The sponsor’s role is to promote the potential which they see in their sponsee to those who have decision-making powers, and help women win in situations where unconscious bias would otherwise eliminate them from the game.

How to successfully start a sponsorship program in your company

If you would like to encourage sponsorship in a company where it isn’t yet widespread, establishing a formal sponsorship program is a great way to go about it. Here are a few steps you can take to start out and build a sponsorship culture in your workplace.

Evaluate your existing talent development strategy

When thinking about sponsorship, think about what the company’s priorities are in terms of talent development. What kinds of employees do you want to see leading the company in the future? Which skills are key for the company’s future success? Align your sponsorship program with your talent development strategy.

Look at how you can integrate it with your DEI strategy

Another strategy to align your sponsorship program with is the company’s DEI strategy. Think of how can you design the sponsorship program in order to promote diversity and inclusion. Look into how sponsorship of underrepresented groups could benefit the employees in question and how it could improve the diversity of future leadership.

Get senior management on board

In order for sponsorship to work, you must make sure that the sponsors are fully on board with the agenda. A sponsor must genuinely believe in the potential of their sponsee, and want to use their position of power to help them grow. Unwilling sponsors will never lead to a functioning sponsorship program, so gather all of your potential sponsors and explain to them the purpose and benefits of sponsorship. In the program, include only those who are all in.

Start with a mentorship program

Having mentioned the previous point, it can be hard for sponsors to recognize the potential of their sponsees without any prior relationship. A great way to lay the foundation for a sponsorship workplace is to start a company mentoring program. By matching people in senior roles with their junior colleagues as mentors and mentees, you can set up an internal mentorship program in your company. Another option is to have an external mentoring program designed for your company where your employees can meet mentors (and, eventually, maybe sponsors), from other companies and gain a new perspective and fresh ideas not only for their own career growth, but for your company as well.

Collect feedback and measure results

Whether you start out with mentorship or dive straight into sponsorship, it’s absolutely key to know whether your program is working. Collect feedback regularly from both sides of the relationship and find out if (and how) it’s helping them. Companies running external mentoring programs will typically collect feedback for you. If you’re managing the program yourself, design feedback forms to be regularly sent out to the participants to keep track of things.

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