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July 29, 2013When you think about it, sponsorship is a completely natural, organic activity. When we encounter someone we think is fantastic, we want to tell everyone we know. But at work, the problem is that we all have an inner filter that judges those most like us more favorably than those who aren’t—all without our realizing it. Sociologists call this phenomenon “homophily,” while psychologists might use the term “ego-sustaining behavior.” Suffice it to say we like things that remind us of ourselves.

When we talk about sponsorship, everyone usually agrees it’s something that’s already happening in organizations—people advocate for those they believe in, and that often results in opportunities or advancement.  It’s how we get folks to set aside that filter and notice others less similar to themselves (not only in gender, but also communication style, networking style, etc.) that is more challenging. And formal sponsorship programs, while valuable, can sometimes throw gas on an already flaming fire if program designers aren’t careful. 

In a formal program, often there is major hesitation on the part of sponsors to provide visibility, introductions to influential colleagues, or endorsement for someone they don’t know. And that makes sense. Structured activities aimed at relationship building can help, but are incomplete at best. More important are opportunities to see the protégé in action—for example, attending a meeting where the protégé is presenting. Some companies have protégés work on real business problems and share their recommendations with senior teams. This leads to a more natural—and meaningful—type of visibility. Protégés also get to see how recommendations are really vetted by senior leaders—pretty priceless information if you’re looking to get ahead. 

When engaging with companies on the topic of sponsorship, we’ll often ask leaders to list two or three individuals they are currently sponsoring (whether informally or formally). Then we ask them to think about what those individuals have in common and what they do not. Unfortunately this next step often reveals an unconscious tendency to invest in the same “type” of employee. 

But taking an additional step to ask who you are not sponsoring and why can be equally, if not more, valuable for fostering inclusion:

  • If you’re not sponsoring because you don’t have enough data on someone and need to see her in action—make that happen. 
  • If her communication style is less than effective—share that feedback. 
  • If she isn’t communicating in the way you’re most comfortable with—stop, take a look in the mirror, and consider whether you have some work to do (and think of this an opportunity to stretch your range of what “good” communication looks like). 

Inclusive sponsorship is as much a benefit for the sponsor as it is for the protégé. It promotes greater mutual learning because the two parties are, at least on the face of it, somehow different. This leads to all sorts of possibilities—if only the sponsor is open to them.

Chemistry isn’t a prerequisite for sponsorship (as it typically is for mentoring), but knowing what someone’s capable of professionally is essential. Letting unexamined differences get in the way of forging potentially rewarding professional relationships is tantamount to discouraging inclusion. So take action to figure out what is keeping you from sponsoring more promising candidates—especially those who don’t look exactly like you.