We are at a pivotal moment in history where leadership diversity has never been more important to organizations’ relevance and success. Our customers, our employees and our society demand it. As Katherine Phillips wrote in a 2014 Scientific American research report – the less homogenous a team’s representation – the greater its creativity, work ethic, ability to innovate, and capacity for complex problem-solving will be. Considering the accelerating challenges organizations are facing, leadership diversity is a clear imperative.

However, the role of learning and development (L&D) in driving leadership diversity has been less clear. In larger organizations, ownership of the talent pipeline rests with human resources (HR) or talent management groups, where diversity recruitment and promotion and pay equity initiatives are emphasized.

Meanwhile, learning functions have primarily driven the delivery of formal leadership training and diversity training across all levels of the organization. Within more robust leadership diversity initiatives, L&D might support formal, structured mentoring programs intended to extend the benefits of mentorship to a more diverse audience of prospective leaders.

So, how well does this model work? Sadly, McKinsey’s 2020 “Women in the Workplace” report found that leadership pipelines are still nowhere near where they need to be. Traditional, formal leadership training events and standard mentoring programs have insufficiently prepared potential leaders to step into their new roles. As organizational consultants, learning professionals have an obligation to help their organizations do better.

Learning teams need to partner with human resources, recruiting and talent teams to identify gaps and opportunities from initial recruitment to broader organizational culture initiatives. Then, L&D leaders should use their findings to inform the design of initiatives that source and develop diverse talent throughout the leadership pipeline.

Here, we will examine the benefits of two often neglected, but crucial, levers where training can build the capabilities of diverse leaders – extended rotational programs and sponsorship programs.

Gaps in Formal Leadership Training

Fully realized leadership training focuses on level-specific technical and interpersonal skills, covering topics from policies and procedures to giving effective feedback and solving strategic problems. Yet, the majority of this training lives in the realm of formal learning – instructor-led classrooms or training content delivered via video or other modalities.

What’s missing from this prescriptive solution set? Critical elements of how great leaders learn, such as opportunities to practice new skills on the job and leverage social learning, are often neglected in learning experience design.

It also discounts the benefits of expansive cross-organizational experience. As Herminia Ibarra observed in her 2019 Harvard Business Review article, “A Lack of Sponsorship Is Keeping Women from Advancing into Leadership,” most CEOs are not selected from staff positions but from positions with greater responsibility in major projects, budgets and revenue streams – positions that often have the least diversity.

By integrating structured cross-functional rotations and sponsorship programs, learning leaders can both leverage the value of informal learning and expand the range of experiences leaders need to increase their capabilities and visibility.

Integrating Extended Cross-functional Rotations

Some organizations have experimented with training leaders at varying points in the pipeline in functions across the business, but these are often too limited in scope or time and do not provide opportunities for disciplined practice. For example, in new manager development programs, participants often rotate through departments across the organization for two weeks at a time. It’s nice exposure, but it doesn’t provide enough hands-on practice to develop necessary competencies.

How do we fix this? First, we need to recognize that formal training only gets us so far. It might expand awareness, but it rarely provides opportunities for practice that prepare leaders to perform in the real world. As Sam Shriver articulated in the May/June 2020 issue of Training Industry Magazine, high-quality practice opportunities are essential.

Examples of programmatic solutions that provide exposure, high-quality practice opportunities and visibility include extended role exchange programs and co-leader rotations. Either could be as short as six months or extend over several years.

A role exchange is exactly what it sounds like: Two leaders exchange jobs for a prescribed period of time. For example, an organization pilots a structured role exchange between the regional heads of operations and sales. In the lead-up to the exchange, the two leaders meet regularly to teach each other the critical requirements of their roles. In addition, the firm sets clear expectations for the two leaders’ relationship as safety nets and coaches for one another. The two candidates establish their own schedule for regular check-ins and peer coaching to provide support.

During the six-month exchange, both identify opportunities to improve processes and build broader understanding – for themselves and their teams – of where the two departments intersect and opportunities to collaborate better. As a result, they jointly propose and manage two projects: One to solve an operational inefficiency and one to build and pilot an additional revenue-generating opportunity. Both leaders are promoted to new positions within a year; management notes that their expanded capabilities and visibility were instrumental to the organization.

Co-leader rotations take a similar approach, with one key difference: One leader with experience in a particular area partners with a new leader to lead the function together for a prescribed period of time. One option is to then have the “new” co-head continue in the role while the more experienced co-head then rotates to another area.

Both possibilities promote increased contact, a remedy suggested by authors Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kaley in their Harvard Business Review article “Why Diversity Programs Fail,”  by exposing tenured leaders to a more diverse talent pipeline, positively affecting diversity and inclusion throughout the organization.

To establish either of these, training must collaborate closely with HR to determine selection requirements, set expectations and establish structures. In addition, prospective rotation participants may need formal training or coaching to support them as they prepare for their new roles. By utilizing informal learning with well-structured, cross-organizational rotations, leadership development can incorporate practice opportunities while broadening potential leaders’ exposure to a wider array of business roles and expanding their visibility to senior management.

Why Diversity-focused Mentoring Programs Fall Short

Formal, diversity-focused mentoring programs are still failing to achieve their goals. In a 2010 Harvard Business Review article on the failures of mentoring women in the workplace, the authors observed that mentorship increased the likelihood of promotion for men – but not for women – for a number of reasons.

In addition, there’s a tendency for senior mentors, who are often predominately white men, to attempt to mold mentees’ behaviors and thinking to make them more like themselves – a kind of reverse-engineered affinity bias. Clearly, this is counterproductive to the goals of diversity in leadership.

Focusing on Sponsorship Programs

Sponsorship programs offer a different approach. Sponsorship and mentorship are often described interchangeably but differ in key aspects. Catalyst provides a terrific infographic that captures the differences between organizational coaches, mentors and sponsors. Put simply, coaches provide developmental feedback; mentors provide advice and strategies to help navigate the organizational maze, and sponsors connect protégés with opportunities and advocate for new leaders’ advancement. Of course, these roles sometimes overlap, but they are distinct and serve different purposes.

Traditionally, sponsorships grow organically: Someone with clout in an organization advocates for an aspiring leader with whom they are familiar to be given a high-profile project or promotion. Because the sponsor’s reputation is on the line, it’s a higher-risk endeavor than mentorship. It’s also fraught with problematic opportunities for selection bias.

A sponsorship program is a comprehensive solution that necessitates rewiring how established leaders consider potential candidates for promotion and opportunities. This may include integrating implicit bias awareness but also requires enhancing exposure and familiarity among potential sponsors of potential protégés’ capabilities. A sample structure for a diversity sponsor and protégé program includes training both existing organizational leaders and potential protégés on what effective sponsorship looks like in your organization and the dynamics of effective sponsor and protégé relationships.

It also requires developing exposure opportunities. In some organizations, a pool of diverse talent is established from which sponsors are encouraged to select when project or promotional opportunities arise. In others, executives are encouraged to lead existing or new employee resource groups to expand their exposure to the members and provide equitable access to appropriate opportunities.


It’s time for learning leaders to reimagine how to effectively cultivate diverse leadership talent pipelines by integrating formal and informal learning and accelerating sponsors’ advocacy for diverse candidates. Initiating and facilitating these expansive initiatives in partnership with human resources and talent management will extend L&D’s value beyond formal training and help their organizations reap the benefits of diverse leadership throughout the pipeline.