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Sponsorship Toolkit

Module One: About Sponsorship


Sponsors participating in the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education’s Diversifying Leadership (DL) programme vary from senior leaders with extensive experience of sponsorship to those undertaking a formal sponsorship role for the first time. Informed by research and evidence-based practice, this module aims to clarify your role and responsibilities as a DL sponsor, to ensure you are able to fulfil your commitment in line with the programme objectives and, ultimately, so that your contribution results in the intended benefits for you, your protégé, and your institution.  The resources provided are neither exhaustive nor overly prescriptive but it is hoped you will find them a useful supplement.

Note: the About Sponsorship module is designed to be released in tandem with the first module of the DL programme, which itself includes an introduction to sponsorship and explains how participants should prepare for and manage their sponsorship relationships.

The statement "It's not what you know but who you know and who knows you' has been the most fundamental thing. I approached my sponsor with this statement and said I need senior staff to know who I am and I need them to know what I do. He agreed and has helped me in this endevour."
2016 Diversifying Academic Leadership participant

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Sponsorship or mentorship?

Key issue: sponsorship is not the same as mentorship. Confusion about the purpose of and the lack of access to sponsorship has disproportionately worked against minority groups[1].

What is your understanding and/or experience of “sponsorship”? How does this differ from “mentorship” and other supporting relationships?

The activity of a senior individual championing a more junior one is nothing new.  The term mentor, a noun of Greek origin and meaning “wise counsellor”, can be traced back to the seventeenth century; the verb to sponsor, which means “to promise solemnly”, is said to originate from the nineteenth century.  Within the context of contemporary career development, “sponsor”, “mentor” and “coach” are often used interchangeably (it has been argued, for example, that sponsorship is a special form of mentorship[2]), but these early definitions suggest an important difference, albeit a subtle one. A clear understanding of the role and purpose of sponsorship - as distinct from other supportive relationships - is critical, therefore, when setting career development objectives. The Diversifying Leadership programme adopts the following definition of sponsorship:

Sponsorship is focused on advancement and predicated on power. It involves active support by someone appropriately placed in the organization who has significant influence on decision-making processes or structures and who is advocating for, protecting, and fighting for the career advancement of an individual[3].

All things being equal, sponsorship – not mentorship – provides the visibility, access to power and professional risk cover required to place high potential leaders on the fast track to career progression: this is what has been referred to as the “sponsor effect”[4].  A study by the Center (sic) for Talent Innovation (formerly the Center for Work-Life Policy), entitled "Sponsor Effect: UK" found forty percent of men and fifty-two percent of women enjoyed satisfactory career advancement when compared to their unsponsored peers.[5] The benefits of sponsorship have long since been understood and realised by (white) men, but much less so by woman workers and employees from minority communities.

"Sponsorship is the launching factor for an employee anticipating career development."
Helms, 2016

That is not to say that mentors do not play an important role in supporting high potential individuals. However, mentors mainly focus of the personal development of their mentees, whereas sponsors focus squarely on career advancement of their protégés. Within mentoring, chemistry is the key relationship variable; for sponsorship, position power is primary. Even when men and women participate in so-called mentoring schemes, research shows the male experience is one more akin to sponsorship [6]. More importantly, sponsorship, unlike mentorship, is a two-way relationship: protégés are not passive bystanders waiting for choice assignments to be handed to them on a plate. In return for a sponsor legitimately using his or her social and political capital to provide significant career advancement opportunities, a protégé (with the prerequisite track record for delivering results) provides value-added currency in the form of complimentary technical skills, cultural insight, access to new/wider networks, useful intelligence from lower down in the organisation and personal leadership capabilities, all of which can be utilised to support the sponsor’s interests. 
Mentors Sponsors
Skill you up Move you up
Talk with you Talk about you
Buff up your confidence Buffer you against risk
Focus is on development Focus is on leverage
Nurture you Advocate for you

In essence, sponsors must:

  1. believe in the potential of their protégés and be prepared to ‘go to bat’ for them;
  2. have a voice at the table where they are willing to champion their protégés;
  3. shield their protégés from harm or undue criticism, thus enabling them to be less risk averse

Without sponsorship, aspiring leaders are less aware of what is takes to succeed over and above technical competence; they are less likely to take on the riskier assignments that turbocharge their careers. In short, the right sponsorship relationship can be a career gamechanger.

What has been your most valuable experience of (a) being sponsored and (b) sponsoring a colleague?

[1] Herminia Ibarra, Nancy M. Carter, and Christine Silva, “Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women,” Harvard Business Review (September 2010): pp. 80-85.

[2] Sowon Kim, (2013),"Networking enablers, constraints and dynamics: a qualitative analysis", Career Development International, Vol. 18 Iss 2 pp. 120 - 138

[3] See 1.

[4] Sylvia Ann Hewlett “The Real Benefit of Finding a Sponsor”, Harvard Business Review (January 2011)

[6] Opportunity Now (2010). What holds women back? Women and men’s perceptions of the barriers to women’s progression

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Why sponsorship for Diversifying Leadership

Key issue: The widespread introduction of mentoring schemes, though well-meaning and not without success, has not delivered the expected changes in terms of diverse leadership.

Along with women, aspiring leaders from BME backgrounds are over-mentored and under-sponsored [7].  This must be seen in the context of leadership development programme divorced from the strategic objectives of the organisation and associated accountability measures, inevitably resulting in a deficit model approach which will be perceived by the participants as little more than a tick-box exercise. This in turn makes it harder to attract and retain talented BME academics and professional staff.

“…often the best mentors—those who provide caring and altruistic advice and counseling—are not the highfliers who have the influence to pull people up through the system”
Ibarra, Carter and Silva (2010)

Historical barriers to career progression mean that high potential BME employees struggle to get on the radar of influential senior professionals – the powerbrokers - who can open doors and advocate for them at critical junctures. This lack of sponsorship explains why women and other underrepresented groups are less likely to be assigned to the most sought after leadership roles and/or are reluctant to put themselves forward for high-risk, high reward opportunities. Significantly, the sponsor effect for BME employees is higher than that for women and men: minority employees are sixty-five percent more likely than their unsponsored peers to be satisfied with their career progression[8]. This is why a core element of the Diversifying Leadership programme is the incorporation of sponsorship process based on transparency and inclusive practice: the face-to-face element of the DL programme provides a conducive space for BME candidates to prepare for leadership; DL sponsors provide the access code to career doors previously locked.

[7] See 1.

[8] Sylvia Ann Hewlett (2013), “Forget a Mentor, find a Sponsor”, Harvard Business Review Press

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(Why) do we need to talk about sponsorship and race?

Key issue: a successful cross-cultural sponsorship relationship relies on mutual understanding on matters related to race, culture and inclusion.

…we have to be willing to have proactive conversations about race with honesty and understanding and courage, not because it's the right thing to do, but because it's the smart thing to do, because our businesses and our products and our science, our research, all of that will be better with greater diversity.
Melody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments, speaking in 2014

Talking about ‘race’ is difficult. Academia stands accused of engendering a “culture [that] supports the privilege to resist, ignore, and condemn any topic that leads to personal discomfort”[9], with race remaining a no-go area. Just as some DL sponsors are new to sponsorship, so too are most of the DL participants. This is particularly true of cross-cultural sponsorship relationships because fewer BME employees have position power and “…it is not as easy for whites to identify black potential and interest as it is for whites to spot other sharp whites” [10]. This means BME employees are seen as higher risk appointments. It has also been shown that BME employees mainly look for supporters whose leadership style they admire, like or trust; these are rarely the people with the social or political capital to leverage their careers.  It follows that DL participants, who are more used to typical mentor focused engagement activities within the unidirectional nature of the mentor relationship, are less aware of the specific, more nuanced behaviours they need to inhibit (and be seen demonstrate) to (a) attract he right sponsor and (b) foster a positive “quid pro quo” sponsorship relationship.

Because of the different career trajectories BME employees can experience [11], sponsors and protégés, in addition to understanding their roles and responsibilities, must be willing and able to engage in “colour brave” conversations to build mutual trust and promote greater cross cultural understanding. For example, one “hot button” issue that may need to be explored relates to authenticity and leadership style. Similar to the “double-bind” phenomenon that labels female leaders either as too masculine or too soft to be leaders, racial stereotypes leave BME leaders in a lose-lose situation where they fail to fit the typical (white male) leadership prototype. Skill and judgement is needed to determine when and how dialogue is required, but the received wisdom is that this should be sooner rather than later. We will be providing further guidance and support in the webinar for sponsors and in additional materials on the website. DL sponsors may also find it helpful to seek guidance and support from DL champions and/or diversity specialists in their institutions.

[9] Edith A. Rusch and Sonya Douglass Horsford (2009), “Changing hearts and minds: the quest for open talk about race in educational leadership”, International Journal of Educational Management, Vol.23 Iss 4 pp302-313

[10] Floyd Dickens Jr. and Jacqueline B. Dickens (1991) “The Black Manager. Making it in the Corporate World”, published by Amacom

[11] See David A. Thomas. “Race Matters”. Harvard Business Review April 2001

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DL sponsors: key roles and responsibilities

The following graphic indicates the range of activities sponsors will undertake:


Adapted from “The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the   Last Glass Ceiling” by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, with Kerrie Peraino, Laura Sherbin, and Karen Sumberg

These and other activities are underpinned by the four pillars of a successful sponsorship relationship [12]:

  1. Trust
  2. Honesty
  3. Communication
  4. Commitment

DL sponsors will no doubt draw upon their own experience and resources to fulfil their role. The following role descriptor is for guidance and to help flag up any potential challenges so that corrective action can be taken at the earliest opportunity:

  • Be familiar with the DL modular programme (three face-to-face sessions, action learning sets and follow-up activities)
  • Agree the parameters of the sponsorship relationship with your protégé e.g. availability, preferred communication channels, key dates, expectations, etc.
  • Get to know what makes your protégé tick – strengths and weaknesses, values long term career goals, etc.
  • Meet regularly with your protégé to review their progress and offer feedback
  • Be open to feedback from protégés on areas of mutual interest
  • Access the materials provided in the sponsorship toolkit as needed
  • Recommend and prepare your protégé for the complexities of new or high-risk, high reward assignments
  • Protect or defend your protégé from mistakes or in situations of high risk
  • Be willing and able to commit to the sponsorship relationship for approximately one year
  • Participate in the Diversifying Leadership webinar and evaluation activities

[12] Heather Foust-Cummings Sarah Dinolfo and Jennifer Kohler (2011). “Sponsoring Women to Success”, published by Catalyst

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  • Sponsorship is a mutually beneficial arrangement, whereby a senior individual actively uses their organisational position and power to advance the career of a credible, high potential junior individual in exchange for commitment and contributions that advance the sponsor’s causes.

  • Historically, the over-mentorship and under-sponsorship BME employees has disproportionately held back their career advancement
  • Sponsors and BME protégées must be open to constructive “colour brave” dialogue around leadership, race and diversity.
  • Sponsorship works. The sponsorship of minority employees brings proven benefits to the sponsor, protégé, and organisation

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Useful references

Herminia Ibarra, Nancy M. Carter, and Christine Silva, “Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women,” Harvard Business Review (September 2010): pp. 80-85. Available at

Catalyst (2011).“Fostering Sponsorship Success Among High Performers and Leaders” available from catalyst (registration required)

Mellody Hobson: Color blind or color brave. Available at

David A. Thomas. “Race Matters”. Harvard Business Review. April 2001. Available at

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      7. New research on governance in higher education
      8. Book reviews
      9. HE facts
      10. Illustrative Practice Notes
      11. Roundtable notes
    5. Governance Briefing Notes
      1. 25. The factors that influence whether governance is effective?
      2. 24. Benefits and impact
      3. 23. Competitive pressures
      4. 22. Corporate ethics and values
    6. Governor Dialogues
    7. Equality and Diversity Toolkit
      1. Overview
      2. Overseeing compliance
        1. The Equality Act 2010
        2. Governance Codes
        3. Overseeing E&D
        4. Reports Governors might use
        5. Case study: Bath
        6. Championing E&D
        7. Case study: ManMet
        8. Case study: Cardiff
      3. Competitive Advantage
        1. Competing in a global market
        2. Improving staff diversity
        3. Case study: Exeter
      4. Issues and Challenges
        1. Student inequalities
        2. Staff inequalities
        3. Assessing specific E&D issues
      5. Value
        1. Increasing focus
        2. Gender diversity data
        3. Improving diversity
        4. Case study 1: UWS
        5. Case study 2: UWS
      6. Questions and Resources
        1. Resources
  6. International
    1. International Engagement
    2. International Reference Group
    3. International Case Studies
  7. Membership
    1. Membership benefits and services
      1. Membership logos
        1. Download the membership logos
    2. How to join
    3. National and regional contacts
      1. Cindy Vallance
      2. Gary Reed
      3. Jean Chandler
      4. Judy Harris
      5. Maeve Lankford
      6. Meriel Box
      7. Rebecca Bull
    4. Membership advisory group
    5. Membership development support
    6. Management Development Resources
      1. Download MDR1: Managing Effective Performance
      2. Download MDR2: Managing Change in HE
      3. Download MDR3: Emotional Intelligence, Personal Impact and Personal Effectiveness
      4. Download MDR4: Lean Management: Doing more with less
      5. Download MDR5: The Current HE Context: Drivers for change
      6. Download MDR6: Commercial Skills for Academics and Researchers
      7. MDR7: Caught in the Middle
        1. MDR7 Contents
        2. Download MDR7: Caught in the Middle
      8. Download MDR8: Working with Academic Motivation and Prestige
    7. Knowledge Bank
    8. Membership community
      1. Members' Directory
    9. MASHEIN
      1. MASHEIN Members
  8. News
    1. Twitter

We are a membership organisation of and for a sector that has some of the brightest minds in the UK.


Our members are key to our strategy and form a community of higher education institutions with a clear commitment to and experience of developing leadership, governance and management capabilities at all levels. Academic and professional services staff from member institutions contribute to our programmes, projects and research and advise on benefits and services.


Find out more about Membership


  • Membership benefits

    • 25% discount on our open and in-house programmes and consultancy
    • a free consultancy day
    • exclusive access to research publications, development resources and funding opportunities
    • free regional events
    • funding for Staff Development Forum and MASHEIN activity
    • members’ mailing lists, newsletters and magazine
    • participation in our development networks


  • How to join

    • Membership is open to all higher education providers and related sector organisations on an annual or three-yearly subscription basis.
    • We have 154 members with around a third taking advantage of the 10% discount offered by three-year subscriptions.


  • Membership benefits

    • Research and innovation: Access to our latest, highly-valued research, Leadership Insights, Getting to Grips series and practical development project resources.
    • More…

    • Management Development Resources: Flexible workshop materials on key leadership and management development topics, for you to deliver in-house to suit your own contexts NEW: ‘Caught in the Middle’. 
    • More…

    • The Knowledge Bank: Save time with these extensive multi-media training resources for HR, staff development and OD professionals, covering key leadership and management theory and practice.
    • More…

  • Get in touch

    Meet the membership team, your national and regional contacts in the UK and Ireland, and LF networks.

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Leadership Foundation for Higher Education
Peer House, 8-14 Verulam Street
London WC1X 8LZ

T: 020 3468 4810     F: 020 3468 4811

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