Is Sponsorship the New Mentoring? Case Studies From EY, Deloitte, AT&T, Dell and Hilton

By Barbara Frankel

Is Sponsorship the New Mentoring?
Photo by Shutterstock

The buzz in corporate-diversity circles in the last two years has been about sponsorship, or political advocacy. Two key questions are often asked: Does sponsorship replace mentoring? And can sponsorship be formalized?

We interviewed experts at EY, Deloitte, AT&T, Dell and Hilton Worldwide, and each company has a very different approach to sponsorship. Three key themes emerge: identifying high-potentials to be sponsored, education and awareness training for sponsors, and accountability for results coupled with valid metrics to assess progress.

Does sponsorship replace mentoring? The executives interviewed resoundingly say it does not. First, they strongly advocate that companies understand the difference between mentoring (providing long-term advice and support), coaching (quick advice in one area) and sponsorship (advocating for the employee to be promoted). Then, they describe initiatives aimed at women, Blacks, Latinos and Asians that couple cross-cultural mentoring with sponsorship (although mentors and sponsors do not always have to be the same people).

Can sponsorship be formal? Yes and no. Seventy-two percent of The 2013 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity have a formal component to their cross-cultural sponsorship program. That usually means requiring senior executives to participate and setting up guidelines and checkpoints to assess success. Unlike mentoring, where diversity and HR departments usually assign cross-cultural pairs, companies rarely assign sponsor-protégé pairs, since it’s extremely difficult to order someone to advocate for another person. The best practice is to require senior executives to sponsor one or more people from these underrepresented groups but not to dictate who the people are.


EY: Embedded in Talent-Development Initiatives

Identifying High-Potentials: At EY (No. 4 in the DiversityInc Top 50), the emphasis on sponsorship, as a part of leadership and talent development for women, Blacks, Latinos, Asians and other underrepresented ethnicities, has been evolving for more than a decade.

EY takes a holistic approach to sponsorship and has formal efforts in place at the Americas-wide, service line and local levels to encourage and provide equitable opportunities for its people to earn sponsors, but it does not limit its efforts to a single sponsorship program. One example of a service-line-specific effort to encourage equitable sponsorship is the 80 sponsor-protégé pairings that exist in the Advisory practice, according to Sue Chevins, a Principal in Advisory Services at Ernst & Young LLP and EY’s Americas Advisory Account Leader.

“A sponsor is someone who has the political capital to help move this person to the right level,” she says. “We have never had someone decline [an offer to participate].” Chevins notes that sponsorship is particularly valuable for women, who tend to be less aggressive about seeking political advocates: “Many women are overmentored and undersponsored.”

EY has several other talent-development initiatives aimed at these groups that lead to sponsorship, including:

  • EY Unplugged, a day-and-a-half program in which Blacks, Latinos and Asians learn from senior leaders, including advice on finding sponsors.
  • Diversity Mentoring, a formal, one-year mentoring program pairing Blacks, Latinos and Asians with mentors that develops relationships that can lead to sponsorship.
  • Career Watch, a formal long-term initiative for high-performing Blacks, Latinos, Asians and female managers and senior managers. The person’s assignments are reviewed along with existing and potential sponsorship relationships.
  • Inclusive Leadership Program, which pairs high-potential performers with executive board members.

“These programs can often go from informal to formal sponsorship,” says Fred Kuntzman, Partner, Assurance Services at Ernst & Young LLP.

Education and Training: EY provides potential sponsors with cultural-competence training materials, says Diana Solash, Director, Americas Inclusiveness Office. The Leadership Matters program includes specific training for senior executives focusing on informal and formal styles and how they help or hinder success.

Accountability/Metrics: Being a sponsor, especially of someone from an underrepresented group, is a component of the people goals for which senior leaders are measured. In addition, EY has formal recognition of this success through its Inclusive Leadership Awards.

Solash notes, “The ultimate measure of success is around promotion.” EY’s numbers tell the story: The promotions of Blacks, Latinos, Asians and other underrepresented ethnicities to partner have increased 58 percent in the last six years, and representation of Blacks, Latinos, Asians and other underrepresented ethnicities at the partner level has increased 42 percent.

Deloitte: Individual Assessments

Identifying High-Potentials: Deloitte (No. 11) has had informal sponsorship for many years but added a formalized element in 2010, as part of the Emerging Leaders Development Program, according to Linda Bohnert, Senior Manager, Inclusion.

The ELDP program, which runs for eight months, officially connects high-potential managers from underrepresented groups to formal sponsors, who commit to at least a two-year relationship. Deloitte goes to the protégés and asks whom they would like as a sponsor, factoring in geography, service line, growth opportunities, what gaps the protégé has and where he or she needs visibility. “One of the problems is there is a lot of political clout and table pounding, so you have to be careful with people you are going to bat for,” Bohnert says.

Education and Training: The focus at Deloitte is on building trust between the sponsors and the protégés. Deloitte University, the firm’s leadership training and learning academy, is designed for high-potentials to interact with senior leaders.

Accountability/Metrics: Deloitte doesn’t separate out sponsorship but it is a factor in performance reviews for top executives, Bohnert says: “The key to sponsorship is setting expectations and holding people accountable.”

She notes that Deloitte considers each relationship individual and assesses it based on the protégé’s needs. “Are they having regular touch points? Is the sponsor opening doors? Has the employee had a stretch assignment?” are all factors reviewed, Bohnert says: “People are different. You need to come from a place where you want this person to succeed. Make this person your own, invest in them.”

AT&T: The Informal Route

Identifying High-Potentials: AT&T (No. 13) believes strongly in cross-cultural sponsorship in addition to mentoring, but the company does not formalize its sponsorship efforts, according to Debbie Storey, Senior Vice President, Talent Development and Chief Diversity Officer. “We believe sponsors have a unique relationship with their protégés and these relationships cannot be forced, they must be earned and grow organically,” she says.

Education and Training: The company focuses on helping its leaders know the role they can play as sponsors. “We ensure they understand the importance of sponsoring individuals who are different from them, and encourage them to develop sponsor relationships,” Storey says.

For example, all the junior and mid-level leadership-development programs include a mentor component that frequently evolves into sponsorship. These relationships are “carefully managed to ensure diverse representation.” The AT&T Champions Initiative includes female, Black, Latino and Asian senior managers with potential. Senior executives get to know them better and, again, many of these relationships evolve into cross-cultural sponsorship relationships.

Accountability/Metrics: While AT&T does not tie senior-executive compensation to individual participation in programs, a portion of their compensation is linked to overall progress.

Dell: Global Approach

Identifying High-Potentials: Dell (No. 37) has taken a global approach to its formal sponsorship program, which aligns with the global focus of its resource groups and D&I initiatives.

Ingrid Devin, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) Diversity Program Manager, ran Dell’s sponsorship pilot program for women across several countries. Senior leaders were invited to be sponsors of seven high-potential director-level women from Ireland, France, the United Kingdom and Belgium. Some relationships were with people in the same country, while others were cross-country. It was the responsibility of the protégé to schedule the meetings and get the relationship going.

“Those who knew each other well were able to start more quickly,” Devin notes. “When they didn’t, it took six or seven months. It depends on the personality of the people involved.”

Education and Training: The company clearly defined the expectation for sponsors and protégés and how sponsorship differs from mentoring. Toolkits were rolled out with the help of the global resource groups. All participants received group training, although Devin now believes one-on-one training would be more valuable. The seven protégés all previously participated in a three-day intensive leadership program. A modified toolkit also was available to those seeking to be informal sponsors and protégés.

Accountability/Metrics: The D&I staff have conducted check-ins during the 12-month pilot, which runs until November, and surveyed respondents on how well the relationships are going and how valuable they are to their careers. Dave Kim, Director, Global Diversity & Inclusion, says the company is in the process of integrating sponsorships into business diversity plans that support diverse groups globally. Going forward, he anticipates internal mobility and retention rates will be studied to ascertain sponsorship’s impact.

Hilton Worldwide: CEO Involvement

Identifying High-Potentials: Hilton Worldwide (one of DiversityInc’s 25 Noteworthy Companies) has an Executive Committee Diversity Networking Program for high-performing and high-potential women, Blacks, Latinos and Asians. The program focuses on emerging leaders from the senior-director to senior-vice-president level. The program has been in place for two years and includes a sponsorship component. In the first class, there were 20 protégés and 10 executive-committee members, including President and CEO Chris Nassetta. The second class has 28 protégés and 14 executive-committee members, including Nassetta.

Each executive-committee member commits to meet on a regular basis with the protégés. HR consultants and the diversity team give input on the pairings but they are allowed to occur organically, says Matthew W. Schuyler, Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer.

Education and Training: The company offers self-development e-learning through Hilton Worldwide University and has launched a new resource called “Culture Wise.” This allows team members to find cross-cultural information globally.

Accountability/Metrics: Hilton has specific competencies tied to its diversity efforts. Those include collaboration, leadership and living the values. As part of their performance reviews, all managers are encouraged to mentor and sponsor their direct reports. The company solicits feedback from the executive-committee members and their protégés and also tracks the progress of those who participated. The company reports that 20 percent of the inaugural class was promoted.

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