Catalyst research shows that “A role model talks by example, a coach talks to you, a mentor talks with you, and a sponsor talks about you.” As individuals scale the peaks and valleys that make up a career, perhaps a more helpful analogy is to look to the mountains. Employees look up to role models, watching closely which paths they choose. Coaches are helpful trail guides and recommend the tools needed to navigate obstacles. Mentors function much like a coach, however they are there to help you climb your career mountain based on your needs: They listen to you and provide advice on the best route. The sponsor, however, is an active advocate along your journey, clearing the path for you to scale past a plateau and engaging others to cheer you on and help you get to the summit.

The role model, coach, mentor and sponsor each play a role in scaling a mountain or the corporate ladder, but how does this experience vary across race and gender? We know that mentoring is essential for leadership development, but it is insufficient for advancing to top levels and women tend to be “mentored to death” but under-sponsored. For women from marginalized racial and ethnic groups, the disparity is even more stark. Catalyst’s research and advisory work has found that these women have less access to networks, sponsors and opportunities which lead to career advancement. Sponsorship benefits in advancing more women to senior roles are clear. Aside from benefitting the women who are sponsored, the act of sponsorship benefits both the sponsor by giving them the awareness that diversity gives them broader and deeper information and insights, as well as the organization in creating a pipeline of engaged talent. So, what are three ways organizations and leaders can accelerate gender equity by creating a culture of sponsorship?

1. Get clear on the scope and desired outcomes. What does success look like?

There are many factors to consider when launching a formal sponsorship program at your organization. Determining the target population with an eye on equity is a good first step. Who are those who are performing strongly now? Who are “unusual suspects” that you should consider (aka, those talent who may often be overlooked)? Specifically targeting women, including women from marginalized racial and ethnic groups as both sponsors and protégés, will drive access to advancement opportunities. Sponsors should be committed to the program’s outcomes and be clear that their responsibilities include recommending the protégés for important roles and utilizing their own network and reputation to enable others’ success.

For program administrators, consider the desired number of sponsor/protégé pairs, how long the cohorts will run, and how to launch, train and continually resource the program. It is critical to also define success — whether that’s number of promotions, lateral career moves or additional development opportunities. When your organization invests in adequate resources to support your sponsorship program, everyone benefits.

2. Reinforce what makes sponsorship effective.

At the heart of a successful sponsorship program is a culture of trust, psychological safety and inclusion. Inclusive cultures are not created overnight and need intention, senior leadership support, and the systems and processes in place to ensure they thrive. But at the core of sponsorship relationships, there must be clear and aligned priorities between the sponsor and protégé, where both acknowledge the reciprocal benefits to them in their careers. Hallmarks of effective sponsorship include:

  • Trust: Trust, on both sides of the relationship, is a prerequisite. The sponsor will be putting their own reputation on the line to advocate for the protégé and the protégé may be sharing sensitive information about career ambitions and challenges.
  • Honesty: Protégés must be transparent with their aspirations and sponsors must give candid feedback to help advance those career goals.
  • Communication: Communication on both sides serves as a vehicle for trust and honesty.
  • Commitment: Both protégés and sponsors must demonstrate commitment to making the relationship work effectively and offering each other value.

3. Champion an intersectional sponsorship mindset.

As an individual working in an organization, you may have the opportunity to get a sponsor or to be a sponsor yourself. If you would like to be sponsored, you must not only first demonstrate stellar work outcomes, but also you should have a clear understanding of what your career goals are. Role models, coaches and mentors can all help you to narrow this strategy, but your sponsor will help accelerate this trajectory and open doors to their network and new opportunities. If you are in the position to sponsor others, it is important to sponsor across differences and be mindful of intersectionality when it comes to recognizing talent. Sponsoring across differences requires you to pay attention to how you experience the workplace through your own gender, race and ethnicity compared to others. Being proactive and curious to understand the unique barriers others may experience so that you can best help your protégé navigate any career obstacles will benefit both you and your protégé.

Individuals spend a significant amount of time in the workplace and navigating their careers. Sponsorship can help employees scale to new professional heights and enjoy the view along the way.