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3 Ways to Support Effective Sponsorships at Law Firms and Other Organizations

Much of my work in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is with law firms and legal organizations and one initiative I work on often is the development and review of mentoring and sponsorship programs. Here are some lessons I’ve learned that you can apply to your own sponsorship initiative(s).

Sponsorship programs can play a crucial role in the professional growth and development of associates. As such, significant effort and time should go into creating an effective sponsorship program. It’s critical that the culture of the organization informs the structure of the program, and while it might be tempting to use a generic framework or sponsorship program from another organization, it won’t actually work.

Instead, draw from best practices and lessons learned from a variety of programs and tailor them to create a pilot program.  that takes into consideration a range of factors, such as: 

  • understanding the culture, people, and goals of your organization; 
  • knowing who the participants are and what the best strategy is; 
  • figuring out the best framework; and 
  • determining how to hold people accountable. 

Sponsorship programs are often used as a tool to move the needle for certain groups. For example, in some programs participants are selected from a distinct grouping within an organization, such as “high-potential” (which is challenging as a determination as it is often highly subjective and biased) associates, or are based on a dimension of diversity, such as a women’s sponsorship program or a sponsorship program for Black attorneys. These programs are intended to mitigate attrition and  further the development and elevation of groups that have historically been underrepresented within the organization. It’s critical then that sponsorship programs are well designed with appropriate structure, resources, and support provided to these groups, to enable them to advance to the next level of leadership.

I recommend piloting sponsorship programs first to allow for lessons learned to be incorporated into a final program framework. In the rush to implement solutions, many organizations fully launch and then have to navigate the challenges of actual or perceived failure. The pilot structure should be used to ensure that participant trajectory (achievements and challenges) and feedback are integrated into the eventual program structure. This will help determine the best strategy and framework to keep participants engaged and to hold them accountable. 

In my experience as a professional development and diversity consultant, I often help stakeholders assess their organizations and provide recommendations on how to best implement an effective sponsorship program. Through this work, I’ve identified several critical factors that contribute to the success of such initiatives. 

One of the key success factors is having the right sponsors. Multiple parameters must be considered when selecting sponsors to participate in the program.Most ideal sponsors are individuals who hold leadership positions, and command a significant level of influence in the organization. Often, this also means they excel at business development and are adept at navigating internal politics. The challenge, however, is that these sponsors often have limited availability to devote to the program due to their demanding schedules. This limitation can impede an otherwise successful sponsorship program so it is important to select sponsors who are genuinely committed to the program and have the capacity to stay engaged with their sponsees.

So, what are some ways to encourage a successful sponsorship program?

Before the sponsors are given their responsibilities, they should understand the mission and vision (desired outcomes) of the program. Do they know and understand who will be impacted by the program? The sponsor also needs to understand the tenure or timeframe of the engagement and how they will be held accountable. Let’s explore each of these more closely. 

Understand the Program and Their Responsibilities

For a sponsorship program to be successful, sponsors need to align with the expectations of the program and the participants at the beginning of their term in this role. They must understand the responsibilities as sponsors, such as the cadence of meetings, potential topics for discussion, and the importance of discussing career goals and career strategy.

Successful sponsorship programs will clearly outline these so that there is shared awareness and expectation. 

Sponsors will often share with me that they’re uncertain about what specific actions they should take as part of a sponsorship program. One of the reasons for this confusion is that many of the benefits they’ve experienced in the past have come from unofficial, informal forms of sponsorship.

For example, they might have been invited to a luncheon with key influencers in the past, but because it wasn’t officially part of a sponsorship program, they may not recognize the significance of that experience. The lunch invitation might have been extended because of shared affinity rather than through a formal program or process. To address this challenge, it’s important to first, bring these informal sponsorship-like activities to the sponsor’s attention and help them recognize their value. By raising awareness of these experiences, sponsors can begin to see new ways in which they can leverage their networks to support and advance the careers of their sponsees. 

Secondly, I encourage sponsors to consider what actions they would take for someone really important to them and whom they would like to see succeed. 

They should ask: 

  • What are the opportunities I’d give this person access to? 
  • Who are the people I would give this person access to? 
  • What types of events (or specific events) would I share with them and give them access to? 

Thinking in terms of these specific questions will facilitate better ideation, both individually and later, as a group of sponsors brainstorming ways to support the sponsees. (Download a list of specific actions a sponsor can take to help their sponsee at the end of this post).

Below, I’ll go into further detail about how sponsors need to align with the goals of the participants, including access to professional development opportunities and increased visibility.

Align With Participant Goals

A critical component of any successful sponsorship program is the establishment of shared goals and expectations between the sponsor and the sponsee. To achieve this, it’s important to establish a clear understanding of what both parties hope to achieve through the sponsorship relationship.

One way to accomplish this is by creating a goal or action list that outlines what the sponsor and sponsee hope to accomplish, and by what timeline. This helps to ensure that both parties are working towards the same objectives, and can monitor progress over time.

For example, if a sponsee might like to moderate an upcoming firm panel where clients will be present, but has not been approached about the opportunity, they could bring that request to their sponsor. When there are partnership or leadership meetings to discuss panel strategy, the sponsor can leverage these opportunities to advocate for their sponsee. Before the meetings they could proactively bring up their sponsee’s name and highlight the valuable work they have done together. This helps incorporate the sponsee into the line of sight for the leadership as a whole. Additionally, it demonstrates that the sponsee has the backing of that particular influencer. 

Also, part of the role of a sponsor in this example might be to share information with the sponsee when a process requires their action. The sponsor might say, “I spoke with John (another partner) about your desire to do the panel, and they understand you’re interested. I’ll follow up with them on XYZ date. Is your bio up to date? Have you started to think about prep questions?”

In that way, there’s both advocacy as well as guidance to ensure the sponsee is adequately prepared when the opportunity does present itself. 

The Role of Accountability 

Finally, effective sponsorship programs clearly communicate the different aspects of accountability. That might be that the program’s organizers/professional staff checks in to see how many times the sponsor has met with their sponsee or they may ask for a copy of the in-progress career plan. 

Another form of accountability could be that the sponsee has to put together a brief report or memo highlighting some of the things that have shifted, or opportunities they’ve received based on the sponsorship relationship. Or, perhaps all sponsors and sponsees gather together twice a year as a cohort to discuss their experiences. 

One effective way to hold sponsors accountable for meeting with their sponsees is to consider their engagement as part of their annual evaluation and compensation. This is the ultimate place of holding people accountable and it can encourage them to consistently engage and prioritize the sponsor/sponsee relationship.

Another impact of lack of accountability is the disappointment sponsees feel and the subsequent associate attrition that can occur when a sponsorship program does not produce the expected or promised level of support. Sponsees join these programs with the expectation of being guided and aided, and when this does not happen, they may interpret it as a sign that the organization is not committed to their success. 

In conclusion, engaging sponsors is crucial for an effective sponsorship program. Sponsors and participants must align on their expectations and goals, understand their responsibilities, and come up with a shared plan for achieving their objectives.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to effectively develop and implement a sponsorship or mentorship program or to assess your current initiatives, email me to learn more about how I can help your organization achieve its goals.

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Sponsorship Program Guiding Questions for Sponsors

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