Unlocking the Power of Sponsorship in Leadership Culture

Unlocking the Power of Sponsorship in Leadership Culture
by Jack Cox, Senior Advisor

Unlocking the Power of Sponsorship in Leadership Culture

Thought Leadership


We have all experienced a time of significant professional development. Often, these moments occur because of a great ‘boss’ or a mentor whose contribution to our development made a lasting impact. A lucky few of us have experienced a more involved and invested career development in the form of sponsorship. And we see and know that both we and our employing organizations are the beneficiaries of such an investment. Sponsorship is about actively engaging with and demonstrating to individuals within an organization that they are valued and not simply valuable to that organization.

What is Sponsorship?

Real sponsorship goes beyond advising or mentoring, providing a distinct and potent form of support within leadership. Unlike advising, which often occurs in team contexts to address immediate problems, and mentoring, which focuses on the long-term development of the mentee, sponsorship involves a senior leader advocating for and actively supporting the advancement of high-potential individuals. This advocacy is crucial in strategic settings, opening doors that might otherwise remain closed and accelerating career growth. By employing their influence and placing their reputation on the line, sponsors play a pivotal role in the professional journey of their protégés, marking a significant departure from the more passive roles of advisors and mentors ​​​​​​​​​​.

At its core, sponsorship transcends the conventional bounds of mentorship by directly influencing the career progression of those who are sponsored. It involves a much deeper relationship between sponsor and sponsoree. It involves a commitment of time and energy from the sponsor and a willingness to spend political capital to advocate for the sponsoree. Senior leaders act not just as advisors but as advocates, championing their sponsorees in strategic forums and decision-making circles. This active endorsement does more than accelerate career paths; it instills a profound sense of confidence and belonging, motivating them to excel and contribute to the organization’s success at an elevated level.

While the individual benefits of sponsorship are clear, its true power is realized in the cultural shift it generates within an organization, paving the way for a collective rise to excellence. Sponsorship is not solely a role or function within an organization; it’s a cultural characteristic that resonates through the behavioral fibers of an enterprise. It’s an agreement among individuals that fosters relationship development, trust, and safety—cornerstones that lead to accelerated development and elevated performance, both for an individual and for the organization. Greater collaboration and a robust retention strategy are organizational benefits of this dynamic, as individuals who are highly sponsored are likely to be deeply invested in the organization’s success, feel valued, and less inclined to leave. Surprises in leadership talent are mitigated, as the inherent trust necessitated by sponsorship invites greater transparency.

What Does Sponsorship Look Like?

Imagine a scenario within a large tech organization: a vice president named Raj has shown exceptional analytical and strategic thinking skills combined with an innate understanding of market trends. However, his talents have yet to be fully recognized and harnessed by the company’s senior leadership. Enter Lisa, a chief technology officer who sees the latent potential in Raj. Lisa invites him into a mutual discussion and, with Raj’s understanding and agreement, into the role of sponsoree, with Lisa actively participating as his sponsor.

Lisa’s sponsorship of Raj involves more than advocating for his participation in high-profile projects. She creates a tailored development plan that aligns with Raj’s strengths and the company’s strategic objectives. She ensures Raj has access to the necessary resources and introduces him to influential stakeholders, thus integrating him into the decision-making fabric of the organization.

As a result of Lisa’s sponsorship, Raj leads a team that successfully innovates a new product spin-off. This becomes a significant cross-adoption opportunity for the company’s target customers, while increasing the revenue and brand equity of the organization. Raj’s career trajectory is expedited, and his success story becomes a testament to the power of sponsorship within the organization, inspiring a culture where talent is actively sought and nurtured.

As in this scenario, sponsorship is about establishing ground rules and behaviors that encourage openness and willingness among individuals to engage in this developmental journey. Leadership is thereby encouraged and helped in developing sponsorship relationships. Also, it becomes about setting clear expectations and fostering an environment that encourages embracing challenges, and where failure is seen as a steppingstone rather than a setback.

 Sponsorship’s Role in Organizations

Sponsorship, when deployed programmatically, is akin to the Kevlar® of a leadership culture: it’s the strongest possible fabric, tightly woven and exceedingly resilient. It complements the traditional organizational chart and is characterized by a mutual commitment to growth, advancement, and organizational impact. A programmatic, intentional approach to sponsorship is integral to creating a resilient and innovative culture that is well-equipped to meet the challenges of today while positioning the organization for the opportunities of tomorrow.

What’s more, cultural sponsorship fosters an environment where every individual feels an inherent sense of belonging. This sense of belonging is embraces being part of a team or an entity, while enabling a feeling of being intrinsically valued and supported in one’s career journey and professional aspirations. There is a strong and evident relationship between belonging and sponsorship. When leaders sponsor emerging talents, they send a powerful message affirming that the organization is genuinely invested in everyone’s growth. This acknowledgment enhances the commitment of employees to the organization, enriching their sense of belonging and reinforcing their dedication to the organization’s mission and values.

In the transformative work of theo with its clients, we witness powerful instances of how sponsorship reshapes careers and organizations. Consider the case where a hospital system’s senior leader championed a senior clinical officer for an interim regional president role. This strategic sponsorship was more than just a temporary assignment; it was a calculated endeavor to cultivate his operational leadership talent. The initiative went beyond professional development—it cultivated a culture where belonging and sponsorship were inextricably linked, each reinforcing the other to create an environment of trust and mutual respect.

Such an investment exemplifies the profound trust and political capital exchange inherent in sponsorship. The clinical officer’s ascension to readiness to take on the ultimate role of CEO was not just a personal milestone but also a testament to the sponsor’s advanced leadership abilities. It also reinforced the organization’s strength by promoting internal talent development and fulfilling crucial leadership roles from within. This scenario encapsulates the essence of sponsorship in action — a commitment to growth that yields dividends for the individual, the sponsor, and the entire organization, all the while nurturing a culture where everyone feels that they truly belong and are integral to the collective success.

Sponsorship and Talent Development

In the realm of talent development, sponsorship is a game-changer. It encourages thoughtful risk-taking and path for growth by actively positioning promising individuals for key opportunities. This approach minimizes the risk of losing key talent unexpectedly, as individuals feel deeply invested in and valued by their organization.

While mentorship is centered around guidance and skill development, sponsorship is proactive and deeply involved in personal and professional advocacy. It’s not about giving advice from the sidelines but about placing oneself in the arena with the sponsored individual. Sponsorship involves a significant investment of the sponsor’s social and political capital within the organization to create and seize opportunities for their sponsorees.

In the realm of talent development, sponsorship can play a transformative role, exemplified by the case of a young industrial engineer at another theo client. Originally hailing from a retail background, her journey within a healthcare system’s quality improvement team was accelerated through strategic sponsorship. Entrusted with a key role in the development of a new hospital, she was tasked with optimizing hospital processes through her unique industrial engineering lens. Her innovative contributions led to significant efficiencies, such as the conservation of nursing time and a reduction in operational expenses. This advanced her professional growth while also delivering tangible benefits to the organization and the new facility, showcasing the reciprocal value of sponsorship in nurturing talent and driving organizational advancement.                                                                                                 

Cultivating Sponsors and Sponsorship Culture

Being a sponsor is involved. It requires the time, energy and focus of a leader to invest in an individual with potential. It involves selecting the right individual to be sponsored. Because it involves significant investment from the sponsor, a leader must use this type of relationship with caution. Although a leader may advise countless individuals and mentor several individuals over the course of a career, sponsorship is reserved for a select few with the energy and willingness to fully develop their potential.

A culture of sponsorship within an organization fosters an environment of safety, trust, and strong relationships, where individuals feel valued for their contributions rather than just their utility. This is the state of being valued, not just valuable. It breaks down silos, encouraging cross-departmental collaboration and fostering a sense of unity and collective purpose.

For example, let’s look at a real-life scenario from the IT sector recounted our client work at theo. In this high-turnover industry, a CEO and senior leadership team embraced the practice of sponsorship with remarkable results. They recognized that to stem the tide of their departing talent, particularly among junior staff who could easily find opportunities elsewhere, they needed to invest more deeply in their people. They initiated individual sponsorship with the intent of not only retaining talent but also elevating it.

This move was strategic and carefully implemented. It fostered not just retention, but also an atmosphere where these individuals could see a future and grow into it. As this culture took root, it began to redefine the company. People felt safer, more connected to their work, and, crucially, part of a community — a stark contrast to the industry’s norm of viewing employees as disposable commodities. The result? The company not only retained its promising talent but also cultivated a leadership community from within, thereby enhancing organizational resilience.

Such an approach reflects the true spirit of sponsorship within leadership —not solely achieving the present gains, but also preparing individuals and the organization for future challenges and successes. It underscores the importance of selecting the right candidates for sponsorship — those who have the potential and the commitment to realize it fully. The story exemplifies the profound effects that can ripple through an organization when leaders choose to invest in their people in such a meaningful way.

The Business Case for Sponsorship

At its core, sponsorship clears the way for unlocking potential and aligning with the organization’s strategic goals. Sponsorship invests in people, not as performers but as partners in the journey towards achieving collective success. This investment yields dividends in the form of a workforce that is eager to exceed expectations, innovate, and propel the organization forward. It’s a programmatic effort that needs to be consistently applied and integrated into the organizational culture to be effective.

Understanding the business implications of sponsorship, we see it’s not just about nurturing talent but also about mitigating the substantial costs associated with leadership turnover. Strategic sponsorship can be a decisive factor in steering an organization away from the costly cycle of recruiting and onboarding to a more stable and integrated leadership dynamic.

Through the lens of our own leadership advisory, we see how sponsorship has enabled organizations to punch above their weight, connecting tangible business outcomes with the ethos of sponsorship. Take, for example, the case of a large national organization grappling with the costly repercussions of executive turnover. The organization had faced three consecutive setbacks in recruiting and retaining a Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO). The financial implications were staggering, beginning with six-figure search fees and spiraling into compensation for interim leaders, not to mention the compounded costs of lost productivity and missteps from leaders who were out of sync with their teams and objectives.

Recognizing the pivotal role of early sponsorship, the organization reshaped its recruitment strategy for its next CHRO. They instituted a structured launch and comprehensive onboarding process that wove sponsorship into the very fibers of the recruitment phase. The incoming CHRO was introduced to this sponsorship framework from the onset, which significantly expedited their adjustment and effectiveness within the role.

Beyond the tangible costs saved, the more profound impact was observed in the seamless integration and immediate productivity of the new system-level CHRO. Freed from the common pitfalls of new executives striving to deliver without clear directives, the CHRO was able to quickly align with the strategic aims of the sponsors and contribute meaningfully from the beginning.

This example underscores the business case for sponsorship. It not only mitigates the financial burden of executive turnover but also promotes a more synchronized and effective leadership transition. By enabling new leaders to be clear on their contributions and closely connected to their sponsors, an organization can fortify its performance and stability, demonstrating the far-reaching benefits of a robust sponsorship program.


The essence of sponsorship lies in its intentionality and authenticity. It is not an ad-hoc or exclusive effort aimed solely at a few high-potential individuals or top performers. Rather, sponsorship should be woven into the leadership culture, engaging individuals across the organization. This systematic approach ensures that sponsorship becomes a living, breathing, and weightbearing element of the organization—supporting and enhancing its structural integrity in the same way that the beams in a building uphold its architecture.

By investing in the promise of their people, leaders build a resilient and innovative workforce, crafting a legacy that champions growth, progress, evolution, and excellence. Sponsorship, in its most effective form, becomes the very weightbearing walls of an organization’s culture—essential for its stability and ascension. It’s a commitment to the collective journey, acknowledging that when we lift our people, we elevate the entire organization.

Cultural sponsorship, as demonstrated in the case studies of Raj and the incoming CHRO, lays down the weightbearing threads that uphold the fabric of belonging. This sense of belonging empowers individuals to invest fully in the organization, contributing their unique gifts and talents while securing their commitment over time.

As we navigate the complexities of change, the role of sponsorship by C-suite leaders, board members, and other key stakeholders proves to be crucial in ensuring long-term, sustainable success. In conclusion, the strategic implementation of a sponsorship program is not just a beneficial practice—it is an indispensable pillar that bears the weight of an organization’s aspirations and achievements.