THE BLOG
08/11/2016 11:56 am ET Updated Aug 12, 2017

Sponsorship: Evolution in Leadership Calls for Innovation in Thinking

You are cruising along in a stellar career.

You've worked in the same division of your current organization for 15 years, exceeding expectations, moving up the ladder, and taking copious notes on the successful habits of those above you.

All signs point to an eventual appointment to a leadership position. It might be two years. It might be five. But you're confident you're doing everything in your power to eventually lead the organization you've helped shape.

Then one day you get a phone call.

"How would you feel about a two-year deployment in Japan? You'd be doing something completely different, and you'd be filling a gap in your skillset. I know you have your heart set on a leadership role, and I think this deployment could not only help with that goal, but open up the door for other senior leader roles. It's a big challenge, but I think you'd be great!"

This is the kind of call you'd receive from a sponsor.

A sponsor is typically a senior leader or influential individual who identifies strong performers, guides them on their career path, and advocates on their behalf for leadership positions across the enterprise. Sponsorship generally drives positive career outcomes and provides needed support for individuals throughout their various career stages. However, sponsorship alone cannot provide the range of diverse mentoring needs or functions that an individual will need throughout his or her career.

Sponsors are important to the success of organizations like Deloitte LLP and are integral to the career development of students at universities such as the University of Pittsburgh as they prepare to become future business leaders.

Sponsorship is an attractive human resources tool for organizations in need of different kinds of leaders--especially diverse leaders. A meaningful sponsorship can foster an appreciation for the diversity of thought, skills, and experiences that are critical for individual leadership development. It can also expand the pool of qualified leadership candidates because it takes a more horizontal approach to finding leadership candidates, something which is vital for organizational effectiveness.

Our research shows that there is great demand for formal sponsorship programs. Part of the issue is that the traditional vertical pipeline of talent management in organizations often cannot keep pace with the demand for cultivating leaders who can lead diverse teams and collaborate across networks.

In Deloitte's Global Human Capital Trends 2016 report, which generated more than 7,000 responses from business executives in 130 countries, 89 percent of respondents rated the need to strengthen, reengineer, and improve organizational leadership as an important priority. More than half of surveyed executives said their organizations are not ready to meet leadership needs. And only 7 percent said they have accelerated leadership programs for millennials.

Formal sponsorship programs can be an answer to these issues. The forthcoming book, "Mentoring Diverse Leaders: Creating Change for People, Processes, and Paradigms," reviewed the substantial body of research and best practices on effective mentoring strategies that drive success and support leadership development within global organizations. The authors found it imperative that organizations redefine sponsorship as a tool for cultivating diverse leaders, and they explored the idea of peer networks as a powerful and untapped source of sponsorship, support and influence.

We believe sponsorship programs and achieving organizational diversity go hand-in-hand. For example, early in his career, Mike established a process to find candidates for key positions in Deloitte Consulting LLP. For each position, he asked his team for four names: one considered vertical or "next in line"; one considered horizontal, or outside of the division of the open position; one minority; and one female. He found that this approach forced a different conversation about succession. Its impact was twofold: the pool of candidates widened, and the diversity of thought and experience increased. Both factors were important in creating effective leadership more quickly. Likewise, the sponsorship that was offered by knowledgeable, supportive and influential peers was critical to the success that Audrey has experienced throughout her career.

We talk with many executives and senior-level alumni in the marketplace. They often agree that a more diverse organization typically attracts high-performing talent and leads to better performance. A recent study reinforced the notion that inclusion can improve business performance and drive innovation, customer service, collaboration, and engagement and that mentoring has a positive impact on diversity initiatives.

Sponsorship can lead professionals to situations and places outside of their comfort zone--maybe even Japan. The experiences and skills transmitted via meaningful sponsorship should assist in setting their organizations and themselves up for future success.