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This is What Supporting Your Employees In Today’s Changing and Chaotic World Actually Looks Like

On the importance of providing employees opportunities for sponsorship

 

From startup founders to nonprofit leaders, CEOs to collegiate head coaches, it’s widely acknowledged that investing in your people proves not only prudent, but essential. Research shows that employees who feel supported at work report being happier and more motivated. And happy, supported employees positively impact bottom lines. 

According to Gallup, companies that report higher employee engagement see 21 percent higher profitability. Ultimately, a supported and happy workforce is, as Shawn Achor once wrote in The Harvard Business Review: “The single greatest advantage in the modern economy.” At a time when companies are buckling under the pressure of rapidly changing work environments and market conditions—with scores of once-reliable processes and systems breaking down across the globe—that advantage is more important and accepted than ever.

Where there’s less consensus, however, is precisely how to best support and invest in your people amidst changing conditions. Most leaders are still opting for a traditional approach by supporting employees via professional development, performance management, mentorship or perks.  

But traditionally applied and myopic means of support increasingly miss the mark. 

As the way we work continues to change, so too must our support approach. Especially right now, as employees want and deserve support that’s more effective, efficient and impactful. Nobody has the time or energy to waste on professional development that’s obviously superfluous. Folks need support that will tangibly and quickly help them overcome barriers to success. This is especially true of underrepresented talent, who are most often overlooked and who stand to suffer the worst from things like remote-work policies and a new lack of face-time at the office. 

What employees ultimately need is sponsorship. Forget professional development. They need sponsorship. 

Sponsorship requires the transfer of social capital. It differs from mentorship in that its results are tangible. Think Warren Buffett investing in the Gates Foundation: that’s sponsorship. Mentorship, on the other hand, looks more like Warren Buffett having lunch with Bill Gates to offer advice on how to organize his philanthropic priorities. In the context of employees and those who sponsor them, it is a co-sign: A figure of influence inside an organization deploying their social capital to vouch for someone else, to legitimize that person’s talent in the eyes of decision-makers. It’s a natural and long-practiced way to achieve both social and professional ascension. In short, it matters a lot. 

But, of course, sponsorship is also more than that. As I’ve seen in my work with organizations all over the world, though still overlooked, sponsorship proves a means of providing employees a more personalized and empathetic kind professional development, as well as a more reliable means of access—both to hard-earned wisdom and, more generally, to opportunity. Which, more often than not, is life-changing. 

Here’s how. 

 

Sponsorship—more than any kind of professional development—has a quick and life-changing impact.  

Professional development of the sort we’re all familiar with is static, one-dimensional and often comes pre-packaged. We experience it in cohorts; sitting together in one room for hours of lectures, powerpoint presentations and perhaps some workshopping. It can be helpful, but it’s not really all that targeted or personal—at least not very often. What people need instead is development that’s differentiated in accordance with their role, life experience and aspirations. I’ve seen both as a first grade teacher and in my work with organizations: When training and mentorship is specific and targeted, it’s more useful, applicable and powerful. 

And that’s what sponsorship provides: Intimate, personalized support and development that’s laser-targeted on individual skills, priorities and strategies that are guaranteed to be relevant—if the sponsor and the sponsee have been well matched. That’s what employees need: Personal and professional investment that’s not only educational, it’s immediately beneficial. If I’m an employee, for example, with dreams of leading marketing teams, and I’m sponsored by a seasoned chief marketing officer, having her advocate for me will, undoubtedly, change my life. 

Sponsorship encapsulates everything I wish I could do for my students–loan them the social capital, experience and connections I’ve collected over the years–so they might actually benefit in a transformative way. 

 

Sponsorship increases social capital—and in turn increases racial equity. 

Perhaps more importantly, sponsorship provides those who’ve traditionally been denied leadership opportunities a means of getting their “foot in the door.” Or, a means of acquiring social capital. 

Consider, for example, how most organizational leaders throughout time have promoted people: They’ve promoted people they like and know. For employees who are systematically overlooked, this results in endemic stagnation—a fact reflected by the embarrassing lack of female or minority leaders presently sitting in Fortune 500 boardrooms, among other things. 

Sponsorship doubles not only as a more effective means of training, mentoring and supporting employees, but as a means of inclusivity and as an investment in diversity. 

If every employee has a strategically selected sponsor, someone who can help ensure they get a foot in the door, they’re getting a chance. For companies, it also works to ensure that diverse talent—a crucial resource—isn’t allowed to fall through the cracks, or go unnoticed by leadership. That’s something business leaders should be interested in for morale reasons as much as strategic ones. 

 

Sponsorship is the most efficient and effective means of investing in employees. 

Organizations invest huge amounts of resources making new hires. It behooves that leadership, then, to train and develop new hires not only as powerfully and objectively as possible—such that all employees regardless of race or life experience prove happy, inspired and effective—but as efficiently as possible. And “efficient,” when it comes down to it, doesn’t look like shelling out thousands of dollars for professional development seminars that don’t work, or providing employees means of slacking off or relaxing in the afternoons. It certainly doesn’t look like investing in mentorship or development that in effect merely pays lip service to the idea of development or mentorship. 

What is efficient? Partnering employees with strategically selected sponsors who even, just by allowing the sponsee to shadow them, impart invaluable wisdom through a kind of natural osmosis. When sponsors are inspired to lift their sponsees up and provide them with the kind of support, training and guidance that changes lives, that’s one of the best investments your leadership team could ever make. 

 

At the end of the day, we have to recognize that it’s nearly impossible to move forward in life on your own. 

In America, especially, there’s this idea that to make something of yourself you need nothing more than a bit of talent and grit. But in practice, no one “makes it” alone. In fact, it’s impossible. Those who ascend corporate ladders or assume leadership positions inside organizations, at one time or another learned certain essential lessons from wise people they had access to. More often, they were straight up gifted some crucial form of social capital or acceptance. Anyone who’s ever made it has had a sponsor. 

Providing sponsorship opportunities for your employees amounts to investing more purposefully in giving your people a chance to realize their potential. It amounts to a means of obliterating traditional, systemic barriers to access. And it proves an efficient mechanism for optimizing employees to perform at their best. It’s as life-changing as it is smart, as strategic as it is good. To be sure, it’s the kind of support employees deserve. My bet is, as more and more organizations wake up to the importance of it, it’s the kind of support they’ll increasingly demand.

 


 

Nicole Jarbo is the founder of Goodbets Group, a social impact firm specializing in startup nonprofits and mission-driven small businesses. Nicole is also a former KIPP educator, Teach for America alumna, and entrepreneur. She attended UC Berkeley for undergrad, and while there she lectured in the education department, played on the nationally-ranked Cal Women’s Soccer Team, and went on to get a master’s degree from Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education.