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Getting Started—Executive Sponsorship—What Is It and Who Benefits?

February 4, 2022 Deana LaFauci
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What do mentorship and sponsorship have in common—and why is it so important to understand the difference?

Advancing in the workplace is no small feat. The hurdles to overcome are countless, and when we look at women and other underrepresented groups (URPs), the obstacles are even greater.  

The business case for promoting and increasing diversity in executive teams remains strong. McKinsey’s research finds that ethnically and culturally diverse companies in the top quartile outperform those in the fourth quartile by 36% in profitability. And, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile.  

Bottom line: Organizations with more diverse leadership outperform the competition—and the culture of inclusion they create supports a thriving workforce. 

During a webinar hosted by Catalyst, Jennifer McCollum, CEO of Linkage, sat down with Lorraine Hariton, President and CEO of Catalyst, and Leslie Lynn Smith, National Director of GET Cities (Gender Equality in Tech), to discuss ways to advance gender parity through executive sponsorship. Check out a full recording of their conversation here and check out this briefer below 

Sponsorship vs. Mentorship 

Executive sponsorship of underrepresented groups goes way beyond mentorship, which is often less formalized and happens organically. 

“A mentor is someone who has the knowledge and will share it with you, but a sponsor is a person who has power and will use it for you,” says McCollum. “Sponsorship is really about people in positions of influence and power using their personal capital to be active champions.” 

Mentorship is an informal relationship that happens naturally in the workplace, most commonly between white men. Historically, white men have held leadership positions, so, due to a concept known as “similarity bias,” they often identify people who are like them to hire, mentor, promote, and more. “People like us help people like us,” says McCollum. “We can break this cycle with formal sponsorship programs. 

Who Can Be an Executive Sponsor? 

The executive leaders who serve as sponsors are the core of any sponsorship program. Understanding who can, and should, be a sponsor and how they can be effective in the relationship is another essential step in a successful program. Effective sponsors are not only in positions of influence and power, but they are willing to use their position and resources to actively advocate for the underrepresented leaders they are sponsoring. These executives are highly respected and trusted as inclusive leaders who are committed to taking on this challenging work.

An illustration of two women with a quote above their head that reads "Formal programs empower executives to connect with someone different from them and to server as organized changemakers."


It’s important to note that informal sponsorship or mentorship programs do not take the place of formal ones. Formal programs empower executives to connect with someone different from them and to serve as organizational changemakers. Sponsors go beyond providing the usual support and guidance and serve as champions and advocates—especially behind closed doors—for the leaders they are sponsoring.  

Benefits of Sponsorship to Sponsors 

While the benefits of being sponsored are widely recognized, the benefits of being an executive sponsor are equally as motivating. Formal executive sponsors are empowered to increase their ability to be inclusive leaders. They can more effectively identify individuals’ strengths and strategically grow those individuals based on their superpowers—a truly invaluable skill for executives. 

“It is really personally satisfying and rewarding to sponsor someone. People take great pride in the people they sponsor,” says Hariton. “Speaking from experience, there’s a lot of learning the sponsor gets from the opportunity. You are learning about how people think and getting a different perspective from other parts of the organization.” 

Benefits of Sponsorship to Organizations 

“We found that highly effective leaders are seven times more likely to be found in organizations that have formal sponsorship strategies,” says McCollum. “And more importantly, these people are more likely to believe in themselves and their success in the organization.” 

An illustration of two women next to a quote that reads "In a time when organizations face complex challenges in both recruiting and retaining key talent, it has become increasingly important to identify and lift up underrepresented leaders."

In a time when organizations face complex challenges in both recruiting and retaining key talent, it has become increasingly important to identify and lift up underrepresented leaders.  

Organizations that engage in strategic executive sponsorship initiatives drive higher retention of diverse leaders and meaningfully build a diverse pipeline to support key DE&I goals and exceed benchmarks.  

The Big Takeaway 

Sponsorship is an effective way for organizations to achieve greater diversity in their leadership ranks, and this not only benefits the leaders and the sponsors, but also impacts the organization’s bottom line, creating better business results.

Take the Next Step | Tap into the power of executive sponsorship of women and other underrepresented leaders to build and maintain diverse leadership pipelines. Linkage’s Executive Sponsorship program is designed to be brought in-house to your organization and engages executives and sponsees in a meaningful and impactful learning journey as part of a broader strategy. Linkage’s Executive Sponsor Track at the Women in Leadership Institute on November 13-16, 2023 empowers individual executives to gain the skills and tools they need to become effective sponsors.

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Women in Leadership Institute

NOV. 13–16, 2023 | Orlando, Florida, or Virtual
A 4-day immersive learning experience designed to equip women leaders with actionable strategies to overcome the hurdles women often face in the workplace.

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