6 Steps for Building Effective Sponsorship Programs in the Workplace

Ten Thousand Coffees Team -
August 8, 2023

A sponsorship program is one of the most effective ways to bring employee development to the forefront of your organization. Did you know that employees with formal sponsors are 38% more likely to agree that their workplace offers equal opportunity for career advancement? 

Yet only 25% of employees report having a sponsor at work, and the numbers drop even further to 5% for diverse talent.

The case for sponsorship is obvious. But the path to building a successful sponsorship program is a little less clear-cut. For sponsorship programs to make the biggest impact, it’s critical to strategically create the right workplace relationships and establish frameworks that put employee development first.

Keep reading, and we’ll show you how to establish a sponsorship program. Plus, we’ll share invaluable tips for building sponsorship relationships that help employees and your organization reach their goals.

Table of Contents

  1. What is a sponsorship program
  2. 6 key steps for creating a sponsorship program
  3. The role of relationships in successful sponsorship programs
  4. 3 real workplace sponsorship examples
  5. Sponsorship programs FAQ

What is a sponsorship program?

A sponsorship program is a structured workplace initiative that pairs junior or mid-level employees (sponsees or protegés) with senior leaders and executives (sponsors) who leverage their influence to open the door for employee professional growth and development.

Sponsorship programs often target high-potential talent and underrepresented, diverse employees. The goal is to support employee career growth by:

  • Creating opportunities for career development: This can include everything from recommending a sponsee for promotion and advocating for raises, to creating stretch projects for employees to build their professional skills.
  • Increasing employee visibility within the organization: For example, a sponsor might bring up their sponsee in a conversation with other leaders and executives. Or perhaps they’ll invite them to a meeting that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to attend.
  • Expanding employee networks: This might include sponsors introducing their sponsee to individuals in their network and influential leaders, so they can make meaningful connections outside of their 1:1 sponsorship relationship.
  • Providing backing and support: This is what  Harvard Business Review refers to as “air cover.” A sponsor should offer a safety net, or “air cover”, for sponsees against negative blowback or consequences when taking on stretch projects or new opportunities. 

It’s also common for sponsors to mentor their sponsees by offering career advice, sharing insights, and helping them carve out their own unique career path. But it’s important to recognize that while mentorship and sponsorship are often closely tied together, they aren’t quite the same thing.

What’s the biggest differentiating factor between a mentor and a sponsor? A sponsor has the ability to advocate and create opportunities for the sponsee.

Read more. Sponsorship vs. mentorship: similarities, differences and impact

6 key steps for creating a sponsorship program

For sponsorship to make the biggest impact, it needs to be formalized in the workplace. 

So how can you design a sponsorship program that helps both sponsors and sponsees make the most of their experience?

Here are a few steps to get you started.

1. Identify the need for a sponsorship program

As with most new initiatives, your sponsorship program should start with a “why”.

It should be clear how sponsorship fits in with the rest of your career development and talent strategy. Some common examples of overarching talent goals that indicate a need for a sponsorship program include:

  • Improving employee engagement
  • Improving internal talent mobility
  • Improving employee diversity and representation

Establishing clear needs and goals helps guide how you set up and implement your sponsorship program. Setting S.M.A.R.T goals also makes it easier for you to track and determine success down the line.

2. Get leadership and organizational buy-in

Leadership almost always sets the tone within an organization. This is why securing executive buy-in should always be a top priority when launching any new program. Getting leaders on board ensures that your initiative gets the support and resources needed to succeed.

This support becomes even more important with sponsorship, because the success of sponsorship programs hinges on senior leaders who are willing to proactively sponsor employees. But before they can do that, they need to have a clear understanding of why sponsorship matters and the impact they’ll have on the trajectory of the program.

When senior executives are clearly invested in an initiative, the rest of the organization also tends to follow.

“Once we rolled out 10KC as PwC Connection Central we saw connections being facilitated across all locations and business units - it’s been an amazing success. And one important example of its impact is that our CEO, Nicolas Marcoux, is in fact its biggest super user!” - Chris, Chief Digital, Data & Innovation Officer, PwC

3. Build the framework for your sponsorship program

Next, you need to determine what your program looks like. Unlike informal sponsorship, a workplace program should be specifically designed to fulfill your organizational talent goals.

Your program framework should also provide structure and clarity for stakeholders and potential participants. 

A sponsorship framework might include:

  • Criteria for selecting sponsors and sponsees
  • The number of sponsees an individual sponsor will have (and vice versa)
  • Clear roles and responsibilities
  • Timelines and communication guidelines
  • What success looks like for sponsors and sponsees

For example, a diversity sponsorship program may include criteria that promote participation among diverse and underrepresented employees. 

4. Pick the right sponsorship program tools

A sponsorship program can be a major undertaking–but you don’t have to do it alone or manually. The right tools and resources can reduce the lift to implement a program and help you run it more effectively.

One example is using automated introduction algorithms. These tools can help reduce bias in the matching process and help you create higher-quality matches in just a few clicks. It also reduces time wasted manually managing matches through cumbersome spreadsheets.

You should also implement tools that make it easier for employees to participate. For instance, instead of implementing entirely new platforms, choose a program that integrates into the systems your teams already use. If participation feels inconvenient, sponsors and sponsees are less likely to make it a priority.

5. Educate employees and train participants

According to a survey from Harvard Business Review, only 27% of self-identified sponsors advocated for their sponsee's promotion and only 19% provided “air cover.” This means that there is a larger group of sponsors who aren’t fully-embodying the role of a sponsor. 

Why does this happen? The sponsor may have a lack of understanding around the role of sponsorship, or even the lack of skills needed to establish a productive relationship. The right training around goals and expectations can help guide sponsors and sponsees in the right direction.

If sponsorship is new to your organization entirely, education about its benefits can help attract more participants to the program. It can also elevate confidence for diverse and underrepresented employees who may otherwise hesitate to raise their hands for sponsorship opportunities.

6. Launch and monitor the success of your sponsorship program

Finally, it’s time to put your plan into action. Congratulations! Launching a sponsorship program is a major milestone. 

Remember those goals you set earlier? It’s time to pull them out of your back pocket. 

Make sure you’re consistently checking in to see if you’re on track. Don’t make the mistake of waiting until the end of the program to measure progress. Consider implementing surveys throughout the duration of the program and using automated data dashboards to stay on top of your progress.

If you find that you’re falling short of your goals–don’t panic. The point of regular check-ins is to take the guesswork out of sponsorship so you can make optimizations along the way. It’s the best way to ensure your program continues to be set up for success.

E-BOOK. Unlock the secrets to an effective sponsorship strategy. Download now.

The role of relationships in successful sponsorship programs

Sponsorship programs don’t exist without the right relationships. 

Here’s the thing about effective sponsorship relationships–they don’t come together overnight. Sure, you can put two people in a (virtual) room together, but that doesn’t automatically mean they develop a sponsor-sponsee relationship.

The foundation of sponsorship is built on trust and open communication. To be an effective advocate, sponsors need to feel comfortable going out on a limb for their sponsee. And on the other side, sponsees need to feel comfortable confiding in their sponsor about their goals and needs.

But building these foundations is often easier said than done.

How to build effective sponsorship relationships

Let’s start by saying that sometimes relationships aren’t the right fit–and that’s okay.

Still, as a program manager, you can lay the groundwork to give sponsorship relationships the best chance at success.

  • Focus on meaningful matches: It all starts with high-quality matches. You can provide all the right tools and resources but if a pairing isn’t right, it can be challenging to nurture it into a real relationship. It’s also easy for affinity bias to creep in–we naturally feel more comfortable with people that look like us. But using unbiased methods to pair employees based on shared interests and goals can help create the right matches.
  • Provide frameworks and tools: Meeting new people can feel awkward, and sponsorship relationships don’t necessarily come naturally. Your sponsorship program should include curriculums and guides that can help further a strong relationship. The goal is to foster conversations that build trust and open communication. As a general rule, the tools you provide should serve as guides and not requirements. When sponsors and sponsees are required to stick to a strict script, the relationship loses its authenticity.
  • Go beyond individual relationships: Sponsorship starts with 1:1 relationships, but it should be more than that. The goal isn’t just  to match up-and-coming employees with a single sponsor but to open up access to other senior leaders, executives, and peers that can help build their professional support network. In many cases, employees can benefit from multiple sponsors who can support them in different areas of growth.

Ensuring the long-term success of sponsorship relationships 

Inclusive sponsorship programs often mean sponsors and sponsees might be paired with individuals they’ve never worked with before. 

Sponsorship is high-risk and high-reward, and it’s a lot to ask of leaders to put their own reputations on the line for someone they just met. It can take time for relationships to build to the point where a sponsor can confidently and effectively advocate for their sponsee. 

It’s almost impossible for sponsors to be effective in a short period of time. Considering this, your goal should be to foster long-term relationships, both throughout the program and beyond.

Here are some ways you can help cultivate long-lasting sponsor-sponsee relationships: 

  • Set expectations: If an employee comes into a sponsorship program immediately expecting a promotion, they’re going to be unsatisfied. It’s important to set expectations at the beginning  around success and what that looks like for participants. Sponsees and sponsors can also set expectations with each other. Even basic expectations, such as how often they expect to communicate and sharing individual goals, can go a long way to foster successful, lasting relationships.
  • Make sponsorship relationships a 2-way street: It’s time to dispel the notion that sponsorship is just about the sponsee. Most sponsors are personally invested in the growth of their sponsees. However, when it becomes a burden and there isn’t a mutual benefit, the relationships become difficult to maintain.
  • Make it rewarding: The truth is, being a sponsor isn’t always easy. It requires time and resources to create opportunities for a sponsee. Of course, you want your sponsors to advance talent out of their own volition, but rewarding leaders for being proactive sponsors can go a long way in ensuring that sponsorship stays a top priority.
Make sponsorship part of your talent strategy. 10KC’s sponsorship solution does the heavy lifting so you can launch a sponsorship program in minutes. Request a demo.

Sponsorship programs FAQ

What is a sponsorship program?

A sponsorship program is a strategy used by companies to promote employee career development and growth. The goal is to create relationships between leaders and company executives (known as sponsors) with mid to junior-level employees (known as sponsees or protegés). Through sponsorship, sponsors use their influence to advocate for employee promotion and opportunity, helping open doors to new opportunities in the workplace.

Sponsorship programs can be used to improve employee engagement, retention, and even diversity.

What is the role of relationships in sponsorship programs?

Meaningful relationships are the driving force behind workplace sponsorship programs. Without trust and communication, it’s impossible for sponsors to effectively go to bat for their sponsees. 

But with the right framework and structures in place, organizations can foster stronger, long-lasting sponsorship relationships. For example:

  • Make meaningful (and unbiased) matches based on shared interests and goals.
  • Provide curriculums and tools to help guide conversations and build trust.
  • Build employee networks outside of 1:1 sponsorship relationships.
  • Set expectations for sponsors and sponsees.
  • Make sponsorship valuable for all parties involved, including sponsors.
Webinar

6 Steps for Building Effective Sponsorship Programs in the Workplace

A sponsorship program is one of the most effective ways to bring employee development to the forefront of your organization. Did you know that employees with formal sponsors are 38% more likely to agree that their workplace offers equal opportunity for career advancement? 

Yet only 25% of employees report having a sponsor at work, and the numbers drop even further to 5% for diverse talent.

The case for sponsorship is obvious. But the path to building a successful sponsorship program is a little less clear-cut. For sponsorship programs to make the biggest impact, it’s critical to strategically create the right workplace relationships and establish frameworks that put employee development first.

Keep reading, and we’ll show you how to establish a sponsorship program. Plus, we’ll share invaluable tips for building sponsorship relationships that help employees and your organization reach their goals.

Table of Contents

  1. What is a sponsorship program
  2. 6 key steps for creating a sponsorship program
  3. The role of relationships in successful sponsorship programs
  4. 3 real workplace sponsorship examples
  5. Sponsorship programs FAQ

What is a sponsorship program?

A sponsorship program is a structured workplace initiative that pairs junior or mid-level employees (sponsees or protegés) with senior leaders and executives (sponsors) who leverage their influence to open the door for employee professional growth and development.

Sponsorship programs often target high-potential talent and underrepresented, diverse employees. The goal is to support employee career growth by:

  • Creating opportunities for career development: This can include everything from recommending a sponsee for promotion and advocating for raises, to creating stretch projects for employees to build their professional skills.
  • Increasing employee visibility within the organization: For example, a sponsor might bring up their sponsee in a conversation with other leaders and executives. Or perhaps they’ll invite them to a meeting that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to attend.
  • Expanding employee networks: This might include sponsors introducing their sponsee to individuals in their network and influential leaders, so they can make meaningful connections outside of their 1:1 sponsorship relationship.
  • Providing backing and support: This is what  Harvard Business Review refers to as “air cover.” A sponsor should offer a safety net, or “air cover”, for sponsees against negative blowback or consequences when taking on stretch projects or new opportunities. 

It’s also common for sponsors to mentor their sponsees by offering career advice, sharing insights, and helping them carve out their own unique career path. But it’s important to recognize that while mentorship and sponsorship are often closely tied together, they aren’t quite the same thing.

What’s the biggest differentiating factor between a mentor and a sponsor? A sponsor has the ability to advocate and create opportunities for the sponsee.

Read more. Sponsorship vs. mentorship: similarities, differences and impact

6 key steps for creating a sponsorship program

For sponsorship to make the biggest impact, it needs to be formalized in the workplace. 

So how can you design a sponsorship program that helps both sponsors and sponsees make the most of their experience?

Here are a few steps to get you started.

1. Identify the need for a sponsorship program

As with most new initiatives, your sponsorship program should start with a “why”.

It should be clear how sponsorship fits in with the rest of your career development and talent strategy. Some common examples of overarching talent goals that indicate a need for a sponsorship program include:

  • Improving employee engagement
  • Improving internal talent mobility
  • Improving employee diversity and representation

Establishing clear needs and goals helps guide how you set up and implement your sponsorship program. Setting S.M.A.R.T goals also makes it easier for you to track and determine success down the line.

2. Get leadership and organizational buy-in

Leadership almost always sets the tone within an organization. This is why securing executive buy-in should always be a top priority when launching any new program. Getting leaders on board ensures that your initiative gets the support and resources needed to succeed.

This support becomes even more important with sponsorship, because the success of sponsorship programs hinges on senior leaders who are willing to proactively sponsor employees. But before they can do that, they need to have a clear understanding of why sponsorship matters and the impact they’ll have on the trajectory of the program.

When senior executives are clearly invested in an initiative, the rest of the organization also tends to follow.

“Once we rolled out 10KC as PwC Connection Central we saw connections being facilitated across all locations and business units - it’s been an amazing success. And one important example of its impact is that our CEO, Nicolas Marcoux, is in fact its biggest super user!” - Chris, Chief Digital, Data & Innovation Officer, PwC

3. Build the framework for your sponsorship program

Next, you need to determine what your program looks like. Unlike informal sponsorship, a workplace program should be specifically designed to fulfill your organizational talent goals.

Your program framework should also provide structure and clarity for stakeholders and potential participants. 

A sponsorship framework might include:

  • Criteria for selecting sponsors and sponsees
  • The number of sponsees an individual sponsor will have (and vice versa)
  • Clear roles and responsibilities
  • Timelines and communication guidelines
  • What success looks like for sponsors and sponsees

For example, a diversity sponsorship program may include criteria that promote participation among diverse and underrepresented employees. 

4. Pick the right sponsorship program tools

A sponsorship program can be a major undertaking–but you don’t have to do it alone or manually. The right tools and resources can reduce the lift to implement a program and help you run it more effectively.

One example is using automated introduction algorithms. These tools can help reduce bias in the matching process and help you create higher-quality matches in just a few clicks. It also reduces time wasted manually managing matches through cumbersome spreadsheets.

You should also implement tools that make it easier for employees to participate. For instance, instead of implementing entirely new platforms, choose a program that integrates into the systems your teams already use. If participation feels inconvenient, sponsors and sponsees are less likely to make it a priority.

5. Educate employees and train participants

According to a survey from Harvard Business Review, only 27% of self-identified sponsors advocated for their sponsee's promotion and only 19% provided “air cover.” This means that there is a larger group of sponsors who aren’t fully-embodying the role of a sponsor. 

Why does this happen? The sponsor may have a lack of understanding around the role of sponsorship, or even the lack of skills needed to establish a productive relationship. The right training around goals and expectations can help guide sponsors and sponsees in the right direction.

If sponsorship is new to your organization entirely, education about its benefits can help attract more participants to the program. It can also elevate confidence for diverse and underrepresented employees who may otherwise hesitate to raise their hands for sponsorship opportunities.

6. Launch and monitor the success of your sponsorship program

Finally, it’s time to put your plan into action. Congratulations! Launching a sponsorship program is a major milestone. 

Remember those goals you set earlier? It’s time to pull them out of your back pocket. 

Make sure you’re consistently checking in to see if you’re on track. Don’t make the mistake of waiting until the end of the program to measure progress. Consider implementing surveys throughout the duration of the program and using automated data dashboards to stay on top of your progress.

If you find that you’re falling short of your goals–don’t panic. The point of regular check-ins is to take the guesswork out of sponsorship so you can make optimizations along the way. It’s the best way to ensure your program continues to be set up for success.

E-BOOK. Unlock the secrets to an effective sponsorship strategy. Download now.

The role of relationships in successful sponsorship programs

Sponsorship programs don’t exist without the right relationships. 

Here’s the thing about effective sponsorship relationships–they don’t come together overnight. Sure, you can put two people in a (virtual) room together, but that doesn’t automatically mean they develop a sponsor-sponsee relationship.

The foundation of sponsorship is built on trust and open communication. To be an effective advocate, sponsors need to feel comfortable going out on a limb for their sponsee. And on the other side, sponsees need to feel comfortable confiding in their sponsor about their goals and needs.

But building these foundations is often easier said than done.

How to build effective sponsorship relationships

Let’s start by saying that sometimes relationships aren’t the right fit–and that’s okay.

Still, as a program manager, you can lay the groundwork to give sponsorship relationships the best chance at success.

  • Focus on meaningful matches: It all starts with high-quality matches. You can provide all the right tools and resources but if a pairing isn’t right, it can be challenging to nurture it into a real relationship. It’s also easy for affinity bias to creep in–we naturally feel more comfortable with people that look like us. But using unbiased methods to pair employees based on shared interests and goals can help create the right matches.
  • Provide frameworks and tools: Meeting new people can feel awkward, and sponsorship relationships don’t necessarily come naturally. Your sponsorship program should include curriculums and guides that can help further a strong relationship. The goal is to foster conversations that build trust and open communication. As a general rule, the tools you provide should serve as guides and not requirements. When sponsors and sponsees are required to stick to a strict script, the relationship loses its authenticity.
  • Go beyond individual relationships: Sponsorship starts with 1:1 relationships, but it should be more than that. The goal isn’t just  to match up-and-coming employees with a single sponsor but to open up access to other senior leaders, executives, and peers that can help build their professional support network. In many cases, employees can benefit from multiple sponsors who can support them in different areas of growth.

Ensuring the long-term success of sponsorship relationships 

Inclusive sponsorship programs often mean sponsors and sponsees might be paired with individuals they’ve never worked with before. 

Sponsorship is high-risk and high-reward, and it’s a lot to ask of leaders to put their own reputations on the line for someone they just met. It can take time for relationships to build to the point where a sponsor can confidently and effectively advocate for their sponsee. 

It’s almost impossible for sponsors to be effective in a short period of time. Considering this, your goal should be to foster long-term relationships, both throughout the program and beyond.

Here are some ways you can help cultivate long-lasting sponsor-sponsee relationships: 

  • Set expectations: If an employee comes into a sponsorship program immediately expecting a promotion, they’re going to be unsatisfied. It’s important to set expectations at the beginning  around success and what that looks like for participants. Sponsees and sponsors can also set expectations with each other. Even basic expectations, such as how often they expect to communicate and sharing individual goals, can go a long way to foster successful, lasting relationships.
  • Make sponsorship relationships a 2-way street: It’s time to dispel the notion that sponsorship is just about the sponsee. Most sponsors are personally invested in the growth of their sponsees. However, when it becomes a burden and there isn’t a mutual benefit, the relationships become difficult to maintain.
  • Make it rewarding: The truth is, being a sponsor isn’t always easy. It requires time and resources to create opportunities for a sponsee. Of course, you want your sponsors to advance talent out of their own volition, but rewarding leaders for being proactive sponsors can go a long way in ensuring that sponsorship stays a top priority.
Make sponsorship part of your talent strategy. 10KC’s sponsorship solution does the heavy lifting so you can launch a sponsorship program in minutes. Request a demo.

Sponsorship programs FAQ

What is a sponsorship program?

A sponsorship program is a strategy used by companies to promote employee career development and growth. The goal is to create relationships between leaders and company executives (known as sponsors) with mid to junior-level employees (known as sponsees or protegés). Through sponsorship, sponsors use their influence to advocate for employee promotion and opportunity, helping open doors to new opportunities in the workplace.

Sponsorship programs can be used to improve employee engagement, retention, and even diversity.

What is the role of relationships in sponsorship programs?

Meaningful relationships are the driving force behind workplace sponsorship programs. Without trust and communication, it’s impossible for sponsors to effectively go to bat for their sponsees. 

But with the right framework and structures in place, organizations can foster stronger, long-lasting sponsorship relationships. For example:

  • Make meaningful (and unbiased) matches based on shared interests and goals.
  • Provide curriculums and tools to help guide conversations and build trust.
  • Build employee networks outside of 1:1 sponsorship relationships.
  • Set expectations for sponsors and sponsees.
  • Make sponsorship valuable for all parties involved, including sponsors.

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