Antoine Andrews is the Chief Diversity & Social Impact Officer at Momentive, the maker of SurveyMonkey.
It’s no surprise that having a strong network offers a leg up for career advancement. Research shows that referred candidates have a higher conversion rate, and they’re more likely to stay with a company. So, knowing the right people to get a foot in the door is often just as important as a polished résumé.
But where does this leave underrepresented folks in the workplace who did not attend the same prestigious universities, join the right fraternities or grow up in affluent neighborhoods with built-in networks?
To be clear, many companies do have an interest in advancing DEI. A SurveyMonkey report showed that since the summer of 2020, there’s been a sustained interest in asking questions about improving DEI. A common way for companies to attempt to level the playing field is by encouraging the mentorship of new employees and first-time managers by more-established leaders. However, mentorship alone isn’t enough for companies to achieve equity.
What mentorship programs lack is advocacy.
Companies are constantly striving to create environments where employees of all backgrounds feel comfortable and empowered to thrive. Despite these good intentions, marginalized groups today still face bias, restricted access to career growth and countless other barriers in the workplace. Mentorship programs are often recommended as a way to address inequity, but truly equitable workforces offer something extra: professional sponsorship.
Research from LinkedIn showed that an incredible 70% of people with new jobs were hired at a company where they already had a connection. In the business world, having an advocate goes a long way. It often matters even more than level of talent does. Hence, having a sponsor can make a huge difference in one’s career growth and development. For marginalized groups, this can be the difference between success and failure.
In both mentorship and sponsorship programs, a more-experienced professional takes someone earlier in their career under their wing. But while mentors focus on advice and guidance, in a sponsorship relationship, the more-experienced person also extends social capital or other influence to help the sponsee grow. Think of sponsorship as a formal, active commitment to help a sponsee achieve specific goals.
External advocacy can truly be a superpower.
Good sponsors act as brand managers for the people that they sponsor—publicly endorsing them, lauding their achievements and simply turning people’s attention their way. The real differentiator in a sponsorship is external advocacy. This is where a sponsor champions their sponsee to the audiences that can make a difference in their career. By extending visibility, a successful sponsor-sponsee relationship uses the power of connection to get early-stage professionals into the right circles and opportunities.
Because people from marginalized groups are much more likely to face bias and preconceptions, they need leaders to go to bat for them. After all, the differences in background are exponentially amplified when you try to compare marginalized professionals’ experiences to those of people from the majority group. Career growth tactics that worked for a well-connected white man might not work for a young woman of color—even if she is equally or more experienced, educated or talented.
Encouraging deep accountability for executives is key.
While sponsorship really has to come from the sponsor, it also requires companies, organizations and members of the business community to foster a culture that encourages sponsorship.
Toni Morrison once spoke on empowerment, noting that the empowered are obligated to help those who aren’t. Brilliant leaders are those who find ways to use their successes to empower and drive change in others’ lives. No one—and I mean no one—who’s succeeded professionally got to where they are without help. But it’s an easy thing to overlook when you’re already at the top. Systemic, organizational impact is realized through executive-level buy-in and minimizing opt-in scenarios. By setting sponsorship as a baseline leadership expectation at the top of the company hierarchy, there’s a stronger possibility for true culture change.
Embed a culture of sponsorship into a company’s DNA.
Focusing on developing a culture that encourages and promotes sponsorship is one of the best ways to create a community that fosters inclusivity and diversity. Sponsorship should be woven into the normal routines of your workplace. Train managers on their interactions with their teams so they’re more likely to create psychological safety and make equitable decisions regarding the processes they control, including pay, performance measurement, career development opportunities and work assignments.
Diversity learning experiences are also key to developing a culture of sponsorship. They’re most effective when part of an enterprise-wide strategic approach, including both awareness and skill development, is conducted over time.
Sponsorship can have an impact right now because addressing issues relating to diversity and inclusion has never been more urgently needed. It should be built into your organizational framework and be a part of your company’s DNA with a plan for creating, maintaining and protecting equity. While sponsorship alone isn’t enough to address the deeply rooted challenges marginalized groups face on a daily basis, I strongly encourage leaders to make a personal commitment to be a sponsor and put some skin in the game. This can be one important step to reaching the equitable workplace that we want to see.