Invest in sponsors to invest in your employees’ careers

In the same way support from VCs and board members can accelerate the learning curve for even experienced founders, support from committed, high quality sponsors can help employees accelerate their learning curves and careers as well. Given that team risk is a primary factor cited by venture capitalists in assessing a startup’s chances of success or failure, why wouldn’t a startup do everything they can to develop its employees?

Sponsors can drive career advancement and provide more impact than mentors and coaches, because they advocate and have a stake in an employee’s success. Sponsorships are especially important to members of Employee Resource Groups, who are less likely to have an extensive network of relationships and are often overlooked. Underrepresented people in tech tend to have fewer role models and may be blazing a lonely trail. Alongside an organized sponsorship program, it’s important to develop specific career goals for participants to track achievement — otherwise, you don’t know if the program is working.

What are our recommendations

Cultivate a teaching environment

If you successfully create a positive teaching environment, all programs that build around it will have a greater chance of success. Such environments must incentivize collaboration, creating a supportive, nonjudgmental culture that recognizes different cultural styles and affirms your company values. It’s critical to reward participants not just for meeting goals, but for helping their colleagues reach them through empowerment, support, and facilitation.

A well structured sponsorship program increases your team’s chances of success, both for the team as a whole and also for people as individual contributors. Furthermore, when smart, committed sponsors are involved in the team’s personal development, with the support of the company’s leadership, they can reduce the risk of team failure, which encompasses issues ranging from attrition to relationship conflicts.

Individual departments may be very committed to sponsorship programs, establishing their own with guidance and promoting collaborative relationships among their teams. Other departments may not have such programs in place, because their leadership lacks interest or guidance. Companies must empower all department and team leaders to create sponsorship programs, and people who want to participate or build programs need access to tools they can use to collaborate with team managers to implement them.

For example, if the engineering group has an extensive program that helps teams cross-communicate effectively and contributes to overall productivity and happiness in the department while the marketing group does not, marketing employees may feel like the engineers are receiving special treatment. Offering tools to help them request and build sponsorship programs, including connections with external resources, will help the department improve, rather than leaving people feeling disadvantaged or unimportant.

A strong teaching environment builds on the inclusive culture in your company, and sponsors should respect work-life balance. They should also make the effort to connect with sponsees as individuals, especially if their life experiences are different.

Sponsorship programs can start small

Very early stage startups may lack resources for a comprehensive sponsorship program — but it pays to lay the groundwork early. Start by drawing on outside expertise to help you set up a framework for a sponsorship program and plan for it to be part of your company’s growth. In a company with 10 employees, someone with broad experience from a larger company may have more advice to offer, or more specific functional expertise, than an internal sponsor, and may also be more likely to belong to an underrepresented group.

Not everyone can be an effective sponsor, and other people may not step forward to offer their skills. Companies should thoughtfully evaluate and recruit candidates and provide them with training so they can offer the best support.

Prioritize sponsors, especially for underrepresented groups

Companies and leaders often focus on mentors to help women and other underrepresented groups. Mentors can provide a mutually beneficial relationship that helps both parties develop their careers as they navigate a workplace or their given field. As they learn and grow, they can take advantage of regular meetings to discuss progress and develop networking opportunities that will help them within the company as well as externally. Mentors offer psychosocial support, acting as friends, role models, and counselors who provide an environment to discuss anxiety and concern.

Coaches can offer an instructional role: They provide people with skills they can use for career development and better collaboration with their team members. Coaches can train people to lead teams more effectively, assist people with technical skills development, and help their beneficiaries with other clearly defined and discrete tasks. Coaches are helpful for career development and often needed, but for skill development and less for career development.

Sponsors are people with senior-level positions who identify or are assigned to protégées. They help their sponsees develop a stronger voice and influence within a company. A sponsorship can result in promotions, more weight in company discussions, and more influence in the field. Sponsors directly enable their protégées with career advancement, and they increase objective career outcomes.

Mentors — the historic shorthand solution to lack of diversity in tech — can be a good sounding board for short term, tactical questions, while coaches can build functional skills, but sponsors are people who are invested in the long term career success of their mentee. They advocate and find opportunities for promotion and career development. They open up their network and accelerate the learning curve for team members who might otherwise fall through the cracks. Sponsors are the equivalent of angel investors for individuals: They take risks on talent, help nurture that talent, and identify opportunities for that talent to catapult to the next stage.

It is critical to prioritize sponsors for members of underrepresented groups. Historically, people who already have advantages tend to receive more sponsoring-oriented support than members of underrepresented groups, who are often only offered mentoring. No matter how many resources or good intentions you allocate to diversity and inclusion programs, if you don’t actively facilitate leadership and promotion pathways for those in underrepresented groups, those efforts are doomed to fail.

Don’t require sponsors and sponsees to come from the same demographic group

Soliciting members of underrepresented groups to act as sponsors is important, because it introduces perspective and offers diverse role models. But, requiring matching can at times be difficult for sponsors who are already pioneers in their field and fill many roles, and it can often feel forced. Seek out inclusive sponsors from inside and outside your company to avoid burdening people. Your sponsors shouldn’t be uniformly male and white simply because that’s who is convenient. Someone from one community can sponsor another, as for example if a Black engineer sponsors a Latinx up-and-comer.

Matching should directly further sponsoring goals, connecting sponsees with the people best suited to collaborate with them in a mutually beneficial relationship. In addition, companies need to think about cultural fits, working styles, and communication styles.

Add a formal sponsorship program

50+ employees

We’ve seen too many startups implement mentoring programs to fulfill a checklist, but they haven’t been truly thoughtful about what it really takes to help members of underrepresented groups succeed. Specifically, sponsors move the needle more than mentors, and most startups do not offer any sponsorship other than for their highest level executives, rather than the people who might most benefit from such a program. To complicate matters further, in our experience, a poorly implemented program can undermine the success of diversity and inclusion programs, and harm team morale.

Often, the few senior managers and executives from underrepresented backgrounds in a company are responsible for mentoring all the new and junior employees from underrepresented backgrounds, with no formal sponsorship program in place. In many startups, this work is not valued or compensated.

Sponsors may be the same people who are already doing much of the other unpaid diversity work. For example, women are often tasked with providing support because of gendered stereotypes about nurturing and guidance. Members of underrepresented groups also take on a sponsorship role because they see people who need help, and the company is making no moves to support them. In both cases, they may not receive recognition for their work, taking it on while trying to balance a larger workload.

To address this, consider adding sponsors from outside the company, including for the CEO, founders, and executives if necessary  —  especially if those sponsors can expand their understanding of D&I. Don’t rely on the one D&I person on your team to shoulder the burden alone.

Create goals and measure progress

Vague goals are difficult to accomplish and it’s hard to measure their outcomes. Some common actionable goals include: Improving leadership potential, reducing attrition, acquiring new skills, better team integration, high performance, bonus opportunities, increasing promotions, and improving employee happiness. These goals should be clearly defined in order to make them measurable. At the outset of a sponsorship relationship, both parties should discuss their goals and expectations.

Metrics hook onto goals: For example, if the goal is to improve leadership potential and increase promotions, a company can track progress in the ranks over time. If underrepresented employees are not moving up, it’s a sign that the program is not working. When teams or a company overall have a high attrition rate, that indicates that employees are not happy. When managers consistently receive negative feedback, a sponsorship program designed to promote their development is failing.

Companies need to consider what to measure and how to measure it, including both negative and positive outcomes. This should include not just overall performance, but breakdowns by cohorts within a company: If people in a management program are performing well with coaching, is that true across managers, or just white men? If retention rates are improving, is that true among all people in the company, or just men, while women still feel left out?

A sponsorship or coaching program cannot be successful if there’s no way to determine how well it’s working. Overall, we have seen that when companies implement sponsorship programs and request feedback from employees, anonymous feedback provides the most effective insights. Those speaking publicly or responding to surveys may claim that the program is working and providing benefits, while anonymously and privately stating that the program doesn’t work.

Create a clear, transparent structure for sponsorship and coaching

Create an organized, opt-in sponsorship and coaching program. People are more likely to be enthusiastic about it if they aren’t pressured to participate, but are instead invited or provided with information on how to connect with a sponsor when they are ready.

Sponsor and sponsee groups alike should be diverse, and a matching program should consider working styles and communication styles as well. Sometimes a relationship doesn’t work, and dissolving sponsorship collaborations should not generate blame or hard feelings on either side. If insufficient sponsors from underrepresented groups are available, a company may want to consider bringing in external support.

The organization should include a clear schedule for setting expectations and boundaries, having regular meetings, and creating actionable goals. It should be adaptable, as a schedule, process, and goals — and how to measure them — that work well for one person may not for another. Requiring people to complete formulaic activities or tasks — a workbook or journal, for example — can be alienating.

Just as sponsors are expected to buy in to the relationship with trust and ethical obligations, their sponsees should commit to the bidirectionality of such relationships. They should be offered advice on setting up clear lines of communication and expectations with their collaborators  —  for example, a woman of color might ask for a weekly check in and introductions to other women of color working in the field.

As you develop a sponsorship program, we recommend this framework:

  • Build on your code of conduct to establish behavioral expectations, accounting for the power dynamic between sponsors and sponsees

  • Set expectations clearly, and err towards structured and goal oriented interactions

  • Create a formal mechanism for ending relationships without stigma or retribution

  • Provide tools so employees can start new sponsorship programs on their teams

  • Use anonymous feedback mechanisms, including surveys, to collect information about the success of the program

Train sponsors and sponsees on the code of conduct

A sponsorship handbook should clearly go over the materials provided in training sessions and should be updated as a company uses metrics to learn more about what is and is not working.

Training should include taking advantage of tools like developing a sponsor code of conduct and commitment to values that stresses “first, do no harm” and the maintenance of ethical relationships. Code of conduct issues are especially important. The power dynamic between sponsor and sponsee can be complicated. People might not want to terminate a relationship that isn’t working, or speak up about inappropriate behavior, for fear that it might damage their careers.

Both parties need to clearly understand their rights and responsibilities under the code of conduct. A young engineer who isn’t benefiting from a relationship should be able to smoothly disengage, while a sponsor who is being harassed by a sponsee should be able to part ways — and report the inappropriate conduct.

Companies should require sponsors to adhere to these policy documents and periodically solicit anonymous feedback from sponsees to measure the outcome of their pairings and determine if sponsors are a good fit, and if the company’s sponsorship guidance is adequate.


We share these helpful references as starting points and encourage you to continue exploring.