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
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.
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), 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.
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”. 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. 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.
|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:
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?
 Herminia Ibarra, Nancy M. Carter, and Christine Silva, “Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women,” Harvard Business Review (September 2010): pp. 80-85.
 Sylvia Ann Hewlett “The Real Benefit of Finding a Sponsor”, Harvard Business Review (January 2011)
 Opportunity Now (2010). What holds women back? Women and men’s perceptions of the barriers to women’s progression
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 . 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. 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.
 See 1.
 Sylvia Ann Hewlett (2013), “Forget a Mentor, find a Sponsor”, Harvard Business Review Press
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”, 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” . 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 , 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.
 Floyd Dickens Jr. and Jacqueline B. Dickens (1991) “The Black Manager. Making it in the Corporate World”, published by Amacom
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 :
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:
 Heather Foust-Cummings Sarah Dinolfo and Jennifer Kohler (2011). “Sponsoring Women to Success”, published by Catalyst
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.
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 https://hbr.org/2010/09/why-men-still-get-more-promotions-than-women
Catalyst (2011).“Fostering Sponsorship Success Among High Performers and Leaders” available from catalyst (registration required)
Mellody Hobson: Color blind or color brave. Available at http://www.ted.com/talks/mellody_hobson_color_blind_or_color_brave?language=en
David A. Thomas. “Race Matters”. Harvard Business Review. April 2001. Available at https://www.bu.edu/sph/files/2012/01/Thomas_The-truth-about-mentoring-minorities.pdf