Professional sponsorships can drive employee promotions and raises, but research suggests that men have better access to those relationships than women.
These strategic alliances differ from mentorships. Sponsors serve as advocates, working to advance defined professional goals, so it's easy to see how disparate access could create gender — and other — gaps in leadership.
To ensure equal access and advance diversity goals, Ripa Rashid, managing director at Culture@Work, a division of Working Mother Media, suggests employers take steps to create formal sponsorship programs.
1. Take stock
Learning and development departments should administer the program, Rashid told HR Dive, because training and metrics will be involved. And the first step is identifying the level of intervention the organization needs.
There's no one-size-fits-all sponsorship program, she said. "Do you want a low-touch, broad awareness program, building a culture of informal sponsorships? Or do you need to target intervention for specific levels of employees and management paths?"
The key here is a top-down commitment. Learning and development pros will need buy-in from leadership, along with an agreement to change directions if needed, she said; "Build the program for your ecosystem, with an eye to adjust and conform to the reality of the organization and your needs."
2. Run a test
Rashid said she recommends employers use a pilot program. "Start with 15 sponsors," she said, "and 15 to 30 protégés." And it's ok to allow participants to suggest potential partners. After all, a protégé may know exactly who is advocating for them and the program may be a way to formalize informal relationships.
Learning and development pros must play an active role in selection and pairing, however. There should be a business strategy that informs selection, she said. Perhaps a minimum tenure should be required, and it's "important that the program not become a mini-me selection," Rashid said, which could widen race, gender and other gaps.
Both groups will need training, especially on how sponsorships differ from mentorships. This demands candid conversations, Rashid said. "There needs to be a reshaping of relationship capital — a reshape of the thinking. Women, particularly, need to look at sponsorships as an advancement acceleration tool."
Initial conversations should focus on opportunities to grow, how the protégé's goals fit into the company’s goals and how to get them there. Eventually, however, the relationship is meant to be reciprocal, she said. The sponsor builds their brand as a leader and builds their own superstars on which they can rely. And protégés share the heavy lifting, bearing responsibility for asking for chances to shadow or projects that can grow their visibility and capabilities.
The pilot also will need to facilitate an environment that's feedback-oriented, paving the way for adjustments.
3. Measure outcomes
That feedback, coupled with certain metrics, can guide the creation of a more permanent program and assist with future adjustments, Rashid said.
For some organizations, that data may include promotion rates. For others, the information may be less tangible, and that's where feedback comes in. Ask: Do protégés feel their skills and opportunities have been amplified? Are their ambition levels up? Do they feel more visible within the organization?
Once initial feedback and data are in, learning and development pros can adjust and roll out a broader program, Rashid said, institutionalizing sponsorships and bringing them to scale.