Career Sponsorship Programs: An Essential Introduction

Career Sponsorship Programs

What is a Career Sponsor?

A career sponsor is a senior colleague who believes in a junior person and helps them climb the corporate ranks. Sponsors use their influence with higher-ups to advocate for their sponsee and make sure they are visible in the eyes of decision-makers. They have the backs of their sponsees so that their sponsees can take necessary risks to advance without fear of getting fired. They advocate for their sponsees to get high-stakes assignments that are necessary to advance to upper management positions. While sponsorship has traditionally been an informal relationship, many companies have begun implementing dedicated career sponsorship programs, often as part of a DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) initiative. Either way, sponsorship is a mutually beneficial relationship: executives who promote junior talent are 53 percent more likely to advance to the next rung of the leadership ladder compared with their peers who fail to sponsor. 

Mentor vs. Sponsor: What’s the Difference?

Both sponsors and mentors can help their sponsees/protégés make connections, advance their careers and expand their networks. Mentors provide insight, feedback and coaching, while sponsors leverage their leadership positions to actively advocate for their sponsees. Sponsors are colleagues at higher levels who can use their influence with other executives to support and promote their sponsee. While a mentor provides potentially career-changing guidance, a sponsor places their sponsee in new roles, suggests their sponsee for assignments that can get them noticed by higher-ups, makes their sponsee more visible at work, and stands up for them in their absence. A mentor could be a peer or other contact that provides advice, while a sponsor is exclusively a higher-up who actively advocates for their sponsee. A sponsor uses their political capital to advance their sponsee – this makes the relationship high-stakes and risky if it is the wrong fit. This has led many companies to set up dedicated career sponsorship programs in order to avoid bad fits and promote success.

Why is career sponsorship important?

Imagine a scenario: two equally qualified candidates vie for a position. One has a senior manager pulling for them. Who gets the promotion? A sponsor essentially lends you the benefits of their network, power and connections. Sponsorship has the ability to transform careers. Sponsored male managers are 23 percent more likely to progress to the next echelon of the corporate hierarchy than their peers who do not have sponsorship, while sponsored women are 19 percent more likely than their non-sponsored peers to advance. According to research by PayScale, sponsored employees earn 11.6 percent more than their colleagues. Women who are sponsored by men make more money and have better career outcomes than women who are sponsored by women – simply because men have more power in their respective organizations.

The vast majority of CEOs are promoted from line positions – positions that have authority over achieving the major goals of an organization. However, according to the 2016 McKinsey Women Matter study, as women move up the corporate hierarchy, they are shifted from line positions to staff jobs – positions that require expertise or exist to assist line positions. The percentage of men in line positions, meanwhile, remains the same. Only about 20 percent of women in upper management positions are in jobs with profit and loss responsibility. 

Garnering visibility is one of the key roles of sponsorship. A 2012 study of alumni of top business schools showed that one-third of men reported getting a lot of C-suite visibility on their projects, compared to one-quarter of women. 2022 Research by the Harvard Business Review shows that 20 percent of white employees have sponsors, compared to just five percent of black employees.

Sponsorship is an integral tool in promoting diverse candidates. Career sponsorship gives diverse candidates a foot in the door. Networking is crucial for career advancement, but diverse candidates are less likely to have existing professional networks at the C-suite/board level. According to a 2013 Corporate Directors Survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers, 91 percent of new board directors came from “the board’s network.” 

Career sponsorship programs are a tool for actively promoting employees from underrepresented groups to higher-level positions. Black managers are 65 percent more likely to advance to the next rung on the leadership ladder if they have a sponsor. Sponsored Black employees are 60 percent less likely to quit within a year than their non-sponsored peers. Sponsorship can guard against the microaggressions that Black professionals face every day. However, with only three percent of corporate executives being black, they face increased scrutiny, and are therefore less likely to sponsor than their white peers. White managers are also unlikely to sponsor black candidates – not least because 91 percent of white managers have no Black, Asian or Latinx people in their immediate social network.

Human nature often leads to a “like me” bias – people tend to gravitate toward people who are like them on dimensions like gender and race. A sponsor is a person who has power and will wield it for you, so the tendency to be attracted to a similar person is even stronger. 

What are some companies with career sponsorship programs?

The American Society for Training and Development found that 71 percent of Fortune 500 Companies offer formal mentorship programs. According to research done by the Harvard Business Review, having a mentor increased the likelihood of receiving a promotion for men, but not for women. This happened largely when a woman’s mentor was not senior enough to have promotional power or the power to advocate for their protégé. This has caused some to say that women are over-mentored and under-sponsored.

Some companies, however, do have formal career sponsorship programs in place in addition to mentorship. These include:

  • American Express
  • AT&T
  • Citi
  • Credit Suisse
  • Crowell & Moring
  • Deloitte
  • Deutsche Bank
  • EY
  • Genentech
  • Intel
  • Morgan Stanley

Some companies have diversity-oriented sponsorship initiatives. Companies that have formal sponsorship initiatives targeting black talent include:

  • JPMorgan Chase
  • Splunk
  • DraftKings
  • Norton Rose Fulbright
  • Fox News
  • Cisco

While some companies have sponsorship programs in place — and many more have mentorship programs — it’s more effective to develop a sponsor relationship organically, according to JPMorgan Chase. Many sponsorship programs have experienced pushback from executives who are being asked to advocate for people they don’t know or don’t think are prepared. However, as pointed out above, sponsorship of Black employees is very unlikely to happen organically. 

To make a career sponsorship program more effective, experts say, sponsees should be paired with sponsors who are more senior than their direct bosses. This is because a sponsor needs to have the power to promote the person they are sponsoring.

How to Get a Sponsor

By sponsoring a diverse candidate, the CEO is communicating that the candidate has the business acumen, strategic thinking and problem-solving skills to sit at the board table. Therefore the sponsor needs to know the candidate very well. However, in the McKinsey study, women reported having fewer meaningful interactions with higher-ups than did their male peers. 

According to Samantha Ross Saperstein, Head of Women on the Move at JPMorgan Chase, sponsor relationships are elusive and hard to come by organically. She suggests becoming indispensable in your position by taking the initiative to help out a senior leader. She gives the example of Mellody Hobson, co-CEO of Ariel Investments and a JPMorgan Chase board member. Hobson started in her organization as an intern, and was proactive, doing any necessary job, even sorting the mail for founder John Rodgers. He was impressed by her work ethic and the two developed a strong bond, and eventually he made her his Co-CEO. Another approach is to become “the expert” – be it a thought leader or exemplary salesperson. Saperstein gives the example of Condoleezza Rice, whose expertise in Soviet affairs garnered the attention of Brent Snowcroft, who took her into the White House and advocated for her. 

The third approach Saperstein suggests is to connect over shared interests. These interests can be work related – e.g., diversity initiatives or serving on a committee – or can be non-work-related hobbies or social causes. 

Career Sponsorship at the Women’s Forum of NY

Women face a “broken rung” at the ladder to managerial positions. For every 100 men that are promoted to manager, only 86 women overall are promoted (89 white women and 85 women of color). Consequently, men outweigh women at the managerial level, which means the pool of candidates for higher-up positions contains fewer women. 

The Women’s Forum of New York seeks to correct this imbalance with a tool it created: a database to help CEOs and board chairs sponsor board-ready women candidates. Established in 2012, the database invites all CEOs and board chairs to nominate women they have worked with whom they know are board-qualified and prepared. The sponsorship process is simple: CEOs simply fill out a sponsorship form and send it to [email protected] Information on the sponsored women is then made available free of charge to nominating and governance committees and search firms. Women with the qualifications to be on the board must leverage their own networks to broadcast their interest in becoming a board member to CEOs and their network of contacts, who in turn can sponsor them. 

Ellig Group’s decades of experience promoting diverse candidates’ careers has shown them how powerful sponsorship is. Their goal is to get all boards in the U.S. to gender parity by 2025.