How To Implement Formal Mentoring and Sponsorship Programs

Informal mentorship is not a bad thing. It helps people to grow personally and professionally. The problem is when your talent decisions are driven by informal mentorship and informal sponsorship, because of bias. And that's why we discuss how prioritizing formal sponsorship creates real and measurable changes towards more equitable outcomes at the top.

The first criteria for creating mentoring and sponsorship programs that are successful at driving equity and inclusion is that they are transparent and formalized.

Left to organic devices, informal mentorship and sponsorship result in biased opportunities and inequitable outcomes. Due to affinity bias, organic sponsorship equates to senior leadership (mostly white and male) predominantly sponsoring individuals in their image, regardless of intentions, while advancing their own careers. Meanwhile, women and individuals from non-majority groups receive far less, and far less influential, sponsorship despite it being a particularly critical factor in their advancement. 

Does this mean informal mentorship is bad? No. Informal mentorships develop all the time and help many people to grow personally and professionally. But, informal mentorship and informal sponsorship alone are not equitable and should not be the primary mechanism driving your talent decisions. If these prized sponsorship relationships remain unofficial and hidden, the evidence of the bias circle parades in plain sight across organizational leadership ranks.

But formal sponsorship creates real and measurable changes towards more equitable outcomes at the top. With formal mentoring and sponsoring as one of several key process changes for Unilever’s Changing the Game, Unlocking the Future global initiative, female executive representation went from 15% to 33%. One core aspect of Parexel’s initiative to increase women in senior leadership involved engaging men as mentors, sponsors and champions. Since 2014, Parexel has increased women at senior VP level from 13.3% to 38.8% (from 0 to 10% for women of color) and women at VP level from 32.3% to 50.3% (3.3% to 14.8% for women of color), with a board that is now 57% women and 29% women of color. 

How To Create Formal Mentoring Programs That Work

Mentorship is usually a 1-1 relationship focused on personal and professional growth. Other forms of formal mentoring that promote inclusion and texturize the company culture include mutual (or reciprocal) mentoring and facilitated mentoring circles.

When mentoring programs are effective, they can increase employee’s organizational commitment, decrease turnover rates, enhance recruitment, elevate company performance, create promotion opportunities, and facilitate sharing of knowledge.

Effective mentor/mentee relationships serve as a safe and open space to raise and explore concerns and ideas without risk, which usually means avoiding matching individuals who have direct reporting lines. They are reciprocal learning opportunities, where both mentee and mentor sets out goals for what they wish to achieve. It’s important to encourage and allow diverse mentees to opt-in to the program, and then match for both compatibility of needs and increased diversity.

According to Catalyst, these factors make formal mentoring programs ineffective:

  • ad hoc matching of mentor & mentee
  • no clear formal goals or objectives from mentorship
  • lack of clarity around time frame or time commitment required
  • absence of monitoring or check-ins
  • lack of accountability
  • no clear relation to business efforts 

On the other hand, these key factors create an effective formal mentoring program: 

  • an assessment for skills and development needs
  • mentors and mentees matched based on skills/development needs
  • well-defined roles and formal goals are created and tracked
  • designated minimum time commitments
  • process in place for monitoring the relationship and check-ins
  • accountability for both mentor and mentee
  • connected to business strategy and linked to career outcomes

Your organization will also want to set objectives for the overall formal mentorship program - such as developing a diverse leadership pipeline, driving more equitable promotion, increasing inclusion competencies among mentors, increasing engagement among mentors and mentees, increasing the proportion of opportunities that go to underrepresented achievers and greater talent retention.

You can then measure the outcomes when it comes to individuals in different groups who are involved in formal mentorships (relative to those who are not) to see the impact on both qualitative metrics (such as satisfaction and engagement and stress reduction) and career-related outcomes (such as promotion and retention) - which leads to a measurable ROI of your formal mentoring program.

How To Create Formal Sponsorship Programs That Work

Sponsorship is different than mentorship; it acts as a spotlight that promotes an individual with advancement potential to an audience of influential senior decision makers. Sponsorship is often identified as a key differentiator in creating visibility, overcoming barriers to advancement and gaining opportunities to shine. When a woman has a highly placed mentor, who backs her with influential sponsorship, research has shown she becomes as likely as a man to be promoted.

As Catalyst has identified, sponsors provide a particular type of coaching to protégés - such as stretching into new assignments and roles for which the individual is being recommended. Sponsors help to up-level their protégés’ capacity to face executive level challenges and provide insight into the unwritten rules. They help to identify ways to deliver broader strategic contributions and seize value-add opportunities for career development, while also helping to mitigate perceived risks of being novel in a role. 

Sponsors also benefit by gaining information that helps them to learn and grow in their own careers. Diverse protégés help to illuminate needs in the organization when it comes to employees and customers. Sponsors also report increases in satisfaction in helping others to develop and be successful. Organizations benefit by gaining more committed and more effective leaders and teams as those in the sponsorship-protégé relationship experience positive personal benefits that spillover into the organization.

In Harvard Business Review, Stephanie Bradley Smith argues that if more black women are to ever reach top levels, organizations will not only have to audit succession plans and examine the barriers to senior leadership for these women, but they will also need to “bring sponsorship into the open” - challenging executives to sponsor women of color, training executives on being effective sponsors for women of color, and rewarding leaders who sponsor diversely for positive organizational citizenship. The same applies for inclusion of individuals of any underrepresented group. 

As a form of impression management among leadership for the protégé, Rosalind Chow in HBR defines the concrete behaviors of sponsors as:

  • Boosting: The sponsor provides assurance around the protégé’s ability to deliver upon the prospective opportunities, basically underwriting the future success and lending their repetitional legitimacy, especially important for women due to biases in performance evaluation

  • Connecting: By claiming association with an individual, a sponsor transfers a positive “halo effect” that enhances others’ impressions of the protégé, as having already met the standards of the respected sponsor. Sponsors also facilitate new relationships for protégés with influential individuals they wouldn’t yet know. 

  • Defending: When others are hesitant or critical, a sponsor often works to defend the protégé and influence the opinion of others, a key part of sponsorship, which is even more important where biases and stereotypes are at play that disadvantage a group (eg criticizing women’s interpersonal styles as too outspoken or confrontational). This is the most risk-taking support a sponsor provides, as they “go to bat” for a protégé and leverage their own relationship capital. 

Chow suggests that sponsors consider their criteria for sponsoring someone, including: if proxies for quality are at play rather than accurate measures of talent, if the criteria for sponsoring is applied accurately across all people one could choose to sponsor, and if there are high-performers consistently flying under one’s radar.

To enhance inclusion at upper levels, formal sponsorship programs require that expectations around sponsoring are both explicit and transparent and there is accountability in place for leaders to be enacting inclusion through protégé selection. Formal sponsorship programs must disrupt bias by putting the onus and expectation on influential leaders to embody inclusion through their own protégé selection and leverage the influence of these concrete sponsorship behaviors behind diverse high-performers. Leaders need to reveal who they are sponsoring and be held responsible for how they are creating the change in cultural dynamics towards inclusion. The organization can then monitor the demographic distribution of talent receiving sponsorship. 

As part of the talent management strategy, and linked to succession planning and performance reviews, formal mentorship and sponsorship programs can move the needle on top-level inclusion and deliver measurable outcomes for your organization.

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