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Improving DEI Leadership Through Sponsorship

In the future of work, top priorities for organizations will involve developing leaders, enhancing innovation, and fostering an environment of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). However, there is often a disconnect between talent management programs that build future leaders and the stated commitment to DEI, McLean & Company highlights in its new blueprint, Build an Employee Sponsorship Program.  

The firm reports in the resource that organizational barriers and biases create unique challenges for underrepresented talent looking to advance their careers, which can result in persistent gaps in diverse leadership representation. The global HR research and advisory firm’s blueprint will help HR leaders address the gap between the current and desired states of leadership DEI through the implementation of a formal sponsorship program within their organizations.  

“Leadership representation gaps will not resolve themselves and individual-level solutions are not enough for meaningful change to happen,” says Elysca Fernandes, director of HR research and advisory services at McLean & Company. “Employee sponsorship exists across a spectrum of formality. Informal sponsorship approaches, though important for career development and maintaining networks, risk perpetuating the status quo, and lack of leadership diversity. Formal sponsorship goes a step beyond in addressing organizational-level barriers.”  

McLean & Company’s research explains that informal sponsorship relationships form organically, without prompting from the organization, but can risk perpetuating existing barriers to career advancement for underrepresented groups. For example, informal sponsorship is prone to affinity bias, where leaders gravitate toward people in their networks who share similarities with themselves. In turn, this perpetuates gaps in visibility to executive leadership and promotion rates of women, especially Black women, Indigenous women, and women of color, to leadership positions.  

Formal sponsorship programs that are rooted in program goals address representation gaps in leadership, target career advancement barriers contributing to those gaps, and provide improved career pathing clarity and support for employees to succeed authentically as they are. The program design sets the duration and clear expectations for sponsorship relationships, allowing for more intentional selection of candidates and relationship matching. In this way, organizations can provide meaningful support to employees who are currently underrepresented in leadership and face career advancement barriers.  

To assist HR leaders in designing, implementing, monitoring, and iterating a formal sponsorship program, McLean & Company has created a three-step process they can follow.  

  1. Establish the need for sponsorship. The first step guides the evaluation of the organization’s level of readiness and need for a formal sponsorship program, the appointment of a core project team and additional key players, the identification of employee segments to prioritize for sponsored candidates, and the translation of the need for sponsorship into program goals and metrics. 
  2. Design the sponsorship program. The second step walks HR leaders through reviewing constraints that impact the program, establishing the program structure, defining sponsorship expectations, and specifying key sponsorship relationship milestones. It also includes program participant sourcing methods, determining selection and matching criteria, and opportunities for technology to enable program success. 
  3. Implement and monitor the program. The final step in the firm’s recommended process supports the development of a program action plan, risk mitigation, and the creation of a communication plan. This also includes selecting and matching program participants, providing training and resources to prepare participants, and monitoring and iterating the sponsorship program as needed.  

Sponsorship cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution, as each employee segment has a distinct employee experience and faces different barriers to advancement. Using an intersectional lens and customizing the sponsorship program to reflect the unique needs of each employee segment is critical for maximizing the benefits of participation.  

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