Sponsorship Has More Promise for Executive Diversity Than Mentorship

There is a new way to promote diversity in the executive ranks.

learn more about Hugh Welsh

By Hugh Welsh • May 27, 2016


Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

The old boys' corporate network needs an overhaul. First, let's acknowledge that in the past, it worked well -- for some. Informal sponsorship facilitated by shared interests like sports, shared experience and familiarity, worked to accelerate the careers of (mostly) young and middle aged white males. Today's talent pool is more diverse by gender, race and ethnicity than ever. Continuing to do things the same, spells the beginning of the end for any enterprise dependent on knowledge and skills.

Organizations which aspire to maintain sustainable competitive advantage will have to act disruptively and with intention to make the urgent and dramatic changes necessary to ensure that they have the talent needed to grow in the 21stcentury. Many organizations have implemented mentoring programs (calling them best practices) and think that's enough. DSM in North America has run a mentoring program for years, which is very popular, but has it been successful? Sometimes it's hard to tell.

Related: 4 Ways to Embrace Diversity for Workplace Success

While mentoring shouldn't be entirely discounted, its widespread adoption hasn't helped women and minorities penetrate the executive ranks like sponsorship programs can. Women occupy only 4 percent of the CEO seats at Fortune 500 companies, and 19 percent of its board seats, according to Catalyst research. And there are only five African American CEOs in the Fortune 500 -- yes, that's 1 percent. There are also nine Latino and 10 Asian-American CEOs in the Fortune 500, which brings the total of minority CEOs to just under 5 percent of the total Fortune 500.

Sponsorship instead of mentorship is a relatively recent idea first raised by economist and Columbia professor Sylvia Ann Hewlett and solidified in her 2013 book "Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor." Hewlett is currently the CEO of the non-profit think tank Center for Talent Innovation and its research bears out the benefits of sponsorship. CTI found that both men and women with sponsors are more likely to ask for high-profile assignments, pay raises and promotion. Seventy percent of men and 68 percent of women with sponsors felt more satisfied with their career advancement, compared to 57 percent of both men and women without sponsors. Even more encouraging is that minority employees with sponsors were 65 percent more satisfied than non-sponsored employees.

This is not the informal sponsorship that has evolved naturally in organizations leading to the perpetuation of white male leadership in American corporations. It is intentional sponsorship where existing leaders are paired with a diverse employee of the company with leadership potential, and takes co-ownership over their career development. This is different, it's intentional and its impact can be disruptive.

Related: Why Diversity In the Workforce Is Imperative

My personal experience shows intentional sponsorship can drive the required change in recruiting, retaining, developing and deploying talent regardless of race, gender or ethnicity that every organization aspires to achieve. In the past few years at DSM, I've taken on four promising employees as my own experiment testing this theory. All were diverse by age, gender and ethnicity and none of them were among the organizations leadership at the time. They did share one trait; I believed they were among the most talented people in our company. The results-- all four were promoted, all four moved across different businesses in DSM, a key development goal; and three have already been promoted to the executive ranks in DSM.

How does it work? When a commercial management position in a much larger division opened up, I reached out to advocate for one of the employees I sponsor. The initial pushback was "no, he doesn't know anything about the business," but I knew how he excelled at the same job in a smaller division. As his sponsor, I went to bat for him and insisted to top management that he be given the opportunity. Fast forward a year into the job and he's already been promoted again -- this time into the executive level and performing at a very high level. I have no doubt whatsoever that without our sponsorship relationship this talented individual, a diversity talent, would be working for one of our competitors instead of helping to grow our largest business unit. I have had similar interventions on behalf of each of the employees I sponsor where I had to advocate aggressively to provide them opportunity and promotion. This happens naturally with informal sponsorship. Smart companies need to start using this powerful tool with intent and discipline to drive the change they desire with speed.

Related: A Culturally Diverse Workforce Could Be a Boon to Your Business

DSM is now moving beyond the more ad hoc and informal approach to sponsorship to consider formalizing a program to identify the best candidates with more objective, technology-based talent assessment tools. The next step will be matching the leading diverse talents -- people who have historically ended up marginalized or leaving the company -- with one of our 350 senior executives as a sponsor. The executive has co-ownership over the career of the talent assigned to them.

To spur sponsorship adoption, companies should also consider tying talent goals to executive compensation. At DSM, we already tie sustainability goals to executive bonuses, so adding talent and business development goals as part of incentive pay outs is a reasonable next step.

This year I was named HR Country Sponsor for DSM North America and hope to use that position as a way to implement sponsorship. Our executive board is made up mostly of white male Europeans -- our CFO is a woman -- and resisting change is human nature. And while we've had a successful formal mentoring program at DSM for several years, it's time to take the evolutionary step from mentoring to sponsorship to get the diversity, and more importantly talent results we want.

Hugh Welsh
Hugh Welsh is the president and general counsel of DSM North America. DSM is a global leader in nutrition, health and material sciences with $12 billion in sales, 23,000 employees, including 4,000 in the U.S., and operations in more than 100 countries. Hugh is active in executing DSM’s mergers and acquisitions. government affairs, sustainability and innovation strategic growth drivers in North America.

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