executive sponsorship

Embedding diversity and inclusion fully into an organisation’s strategy and structure requires a top down and a bottom up approach to achieve an equitable work environment in which all employees feel that they are welcome and that they belong. The impetus and initiative must from the outset however, come from upper management who can put two-way working relationships into place which will benefit both parties and ultimately, the business.

Executive sponsorship is the conduit through which such mutual gains can be made within the EDI sphere and it can work on a project level just as successfully as it can on an individual or employee level. Involvement of senior leaders is therefore integral to the success of achieving certain EDI goals by accelerating career progression for high-potential individuals who may otherwise be less visible when opportunities for promotion are presented.

In practical terms, this means the Executive Sponsor actively advocates for such an individual by helping them find their desired and suited career path, and creating opportunities for them to advance. This is particularly important for members of underrepresented groups who may already have to get beyond biases and perceived glass ceilings to reach their full potential and ambition. An important distinction should be made between the role played by an Executive Sponsor and a Mentor: mentorship is focussed on advice and strategising with the employee themselves, whereas sponsorship is more outward looking and promotes awareness about the employee to those who can positively impact their career.

Executive Sponsor Role: As a Business Tool

Successful businesses reflect society and the diverse people within that society. An organisation’s employee population is the mirror from which senior leadership can have full visibility of those who may be potential future customers from an external perspective. Senior leaders who take on an Executive Sponsor role will gain better clarity and a deeper understanding of the diversity of their employee base which is the foundation from which strategy and business development can evolve. From an EDI viewpoint, an Executive Sponsor can be the catalyst for positive change within her/his organisation. Identifying and advocating talent also works neatly within the parameters of succession planning in a diverse and inclusive way.

“Having Executive Sponsors is certainly a real visible sign of leadership from the top. As a board sponsor, I have four or five roles: positive agitator, listening to our colleagues and networks, visible support, coordinating people and helping with the external profile.” Tim Fallowfield OBE, Company Secretary & Corporate Services Director, Sainsbury’s

Executive Sponsor Role: As a Personal Growth Opportunity For Senior Leader

Through traditional organisational structures, senior leaders are often distanced from the opinions and experiences of colleagues lower down the career ladder and therefore inadvertently miss out on hearing about their job insights, experiences and challenges. Executive Sponsors can encounter a hugely beneficial learning curve – both personally and professionally – when interacting with their Sponsees and develop their own leadership skills through doing so.

“The relationship is as much a growth opportunity for the Executive Sponsor as it is for the Sponsee. During the course of several of our conversations, I remember thinking how appreciative I was at the things I was learning”. Bruce Harkness, Senior Vice President Human Resources, Customer Experience and Internal Communications, Wyndham Destinations

It stretches the Sponsor in terms of growth and development which allows a sense of being part of something bigger by being able to give back.

Executive Sponsor Role: As a Career Accelerator For Individuals/Employees

A fundamental part of being a senior leader is encouraging high-potential employees to climb the career ladder – and not necessarily in the direction that they themselves are striving for. Through building a strong Sponsor/Sponsee relationship, senior leaders may recognise qualities and strengths unperceived by an employee themselves and through mentoring and opening the right career channels, can facilitate and advocate development opportunities through stretch assignments and promotion. This partnership is critical for progressing talent up to senior leadership level.

“I share that real enthusiasm for the magic that’s created when through our roles, we can make it ok for people to be creative, feel empowered and come up with brilliant ideas.” Fraser Longden, COO Wickes

Executive Sponsor Role: Supporting Employee Network Groups

The ultimate goal for any employee network group is to drive change. In order to do this most effectively, having the backing of an Executive Sponsor will expedite the process by bringing the networks groups’ objectives to the attention of the Board while also creating increased legitimacy and positive attention for that group. Without this role in place, it is difficult for group members to have their voices heard by senior management and thus implement effectual and positive change. To encourage structure and impact, it is best practice to engage a senior leader who can effectively influence the network group’s goals and objectives.

Executive Sponsors can introduce group events and initiatives, assist with group goals, participate in meetings, act as an ally or a role model, help other senior leaders better understand the group’s issues, promote the value of the network group and help achieve the right balance between strategic thinkers and the doers who drive the strategy forward.

“We should all just be really open to hearing other people’s lived experiences because they are all different to our own and only by listening and learning are we going to create a more inclusive, better environment within our workplaces.” Jyoti Tailor, Executive Sponsor Ethnic Team Members Resource Group, Hilton

Sponsee Perspective

We know from running leadership development programmes that executive sponsorship gives an enormous boost to Sponsees. It allows for open and honest dialogue with a senior leader who can provide first-hand advice and learning but who also has an overview of the business and where talent is needed, and who is best suited to fit such roles. Having an Executive Sponsor gives weight and amplification to the Sponsee’s ambitions thus creating awareness among other senior leaders of their existence and potential. 

“Building this relationship with someone who didn’t know me, and didn’t know what I wasn’t capable of,  made me need to more clearly articulate my vision. I think I finally appreciate what the word ‘self-actualisation’ means!”