Blogs / 02 May 2021 6 min

6 steps to creating a women’s sponsorship programme

Despite the best efforts of many companies, gender balance at the top of organisations remains stubbornly difficult to achieve. In the UK you are more likely to be called Andy than you are to be a woman CEO of one of the UK’s largest companies. The pandemic has further set back progress with the World Economic Forum recently concluding that global gender equity is now 135 years away.

The reasons for the disparity at the top are nuanced and intricate and we describe them in our 3 Barriers to Women’s Progression whitepaper, along with important actions organisations can take to address this imbalance.

Download The Three Barriers to Women’s Progression: What organisations can do whitepaper.

One of the actions we often recommend is to implement a formal sponsorship programme for women. In a recent blog I explained how sponsorship differs to mentoring and draw on Professor Herminia Ibarra’s succinct categorisation: “While a mentor is someone who has knowledge and will share it with you, a sponsor is a person who has power and will use it for you”. With sponsorship being critical for promotion to the most senior roles, and with men 25% more likely than women to receive sponsorship [1], formal sponsorship programmes can help provide a level playing field.

We have worked with clients across more than 20 countries and six continents in implementing sponsorship programmes for women. Here is the six-step process we use with our clients.

  1. Identify the purpose of sponsorship. This might sound like an obvious question, but what is your primary objective for the programme? Is it to help enable more women to be promoted to senior roles? Or is it to provide support and nurturing of more junior talent? The purpose will impact not only who you include as sponsors and sponsorees, but also the design of the programme and how you measure impact.
  2. Identify sponsorees. Here you have a choice of company or self-nomination: a decision that will be informed by your objectives. Let’s say your objective is facilitate women’s career progression for women at middle management level into executive roles in under-represented business functions over the coming 1 – 2 years. You will therefore want to ensure the sponsorees are at a certain job grade, are in (or aspire to be in) the target business area, have the aspiration to progress as well as the capability (this is a whole other topic in its own right, but for now let’s assume that your organisation has a rigorous measure for this). In this example, company nomination would be more suitable to allow you to target women.
  3. Identify sponsors. Given a key role of the sponsor is to raise the visibility of the sponsoree, it is important that they hold a position of power in the part of the business that you are looking to target (or the part of the business that the sponsoree aspires to). Some sponsorship programmes target sponsors one level above the sponsor, however depending on your organisation size we usually recommend two levels. This makes it more likely the sponsoree benefits from the tutelage of a seasoned executive with status and power. Additionally, you will want to screen your sponsors for the right attributes: the desire to help women with their career progression, a non-judgmental attitude and a track record of developing others.
  4. Matching sponsors and sponsorees. Here you have a choice of matching individuals behind-the-scenes or adopting a more egalitarian approach. Having both parties nominate their first and second choice partner, and matching on that basis, will take more time but is more likely to result in robust pairings. But it does come with the risk that popular sponsors will be over-subscribed and preferences cannot be accommodated. Alternatively, the matching can be done more directly by the HR function with an opt-out clause if the pairing doesn’t feel right for either party.
  5. Onboarding sponsors and sponsorees. Companies introducing a sponsorship programme for the first time benefit from setting clear guide rails around the role and expectations of each party, perhaps in the form of some guidelines and processes which we often prepare for clients. We always recommend running onboarding workshops for sponsor and sponsorees to attend together, which set out expectations, and address the concerns often on the minds of participants. Being clear on what is expected of each party, how often meetings should be held, a sample structure for meetings, how to deal with a mis-match and so on will help position the programme for success.
  6. Ongoing support. It takes time to build an awareness and culture of sponsorship in the business. Sponsors taking on the role for the first time will have moments when they are unsure of how to manage specific situations, and sometimes owing to their seniority they may be reluctant to seek advice. We recommend peer check-in sessions several times during the programme where sponsors can share tips and learnings in a safe space with their peers. We recently invited a former sponsor/sponsoree pair to one of these sessions to help share learnings with the latest sponsor cohort as to what to expect and how to maximise the arrangement for both parties. It was a powerful session and invaluable to the new sponsors.

Effective sponsorship programmes take time to build, but the potential rewards are great. With proper implementation, they can lead to better engagement, innovation, and employee satisfaction in the workplace – not to mention they’re the right thing to do. However, poorly or half-heartedly managed sponsorship programmes are a drain of resources and risk raising unrealistic expectations. Careful thought, planning and matching of sponsors and sponsorees is critical to an effective outcome.

At Shape Talent, we’ve used our 20+ years of expertise to design and implement sponsorship programmes for clients around the world. If you’d like to discuss how we can help you to develop a powerful sponsorship programme, then please get in touch.

Sharon Peake is the founder and CEO of Shape Talent Ltd, the diversity, equity and inclusion experts for complex multinational organisations who are serious about gender equality – and what it can achieve for their business.

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[1] Ibarra, H. (2019). A lack of sponsorship is keeping women from advancing into leadership. Harvard Business Review. August 19, 2019.