AT&T, ADP and Hilton Talent Development Leaders Discuss Formal Sponsorship Programs

During Fair360, formerly DiversityInc’s virtual 2020 Top 50 Announcement Event, talent leaders from AT&T (Fair360, formerly DiversityInc Hall of Fame), ADP (No. 4 on The Fair360, formerly DiversityInc’s Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2020) and Hilton (No. 2 in 2020) shared their insights into the benefits of formal sponsorship programs for both sponsors and protégés.

Belinda Grant-Anderson, AT&T‘s vice president of talent development; Bob Lockett, ADP’s chief talent officer; and Gretchen Stroud, Hilton’s vice president of talent development and team member engagement, took part in a panel moderated by Lissiah Hundley, Fair360, formerly DiversityInc’s head of strategic partnerships and client fulfillment.

Hundley began by defining formal sponsorship as a measurable action between an established leader or person of influence and an employee or up-and-coming leader who is seeking support, professional guidance and an advocator in the workplace to help them transform their career.

Formalizing the sponsorship process can strengthen an employee’s development and opportunities for growth.

The distinction between sponsorship and mentorship is important to note. Stroud explained that a mentorship relationship allows the mentee to receive advice, coaching and support from someone who may be more experienced. Sponsorship, however, involves more advocacy on behalf of the protégé.

“Sponsorship is really where the rubber meets the road, if you will, in that sponsorship is when you have someone who is specifically advocating for you and for your career advancement, and is willing to put their political capital and their organization on the line to help sort of push you further in your career than you may be able to go just on your own,” Stroud said.

Sponsorship is specifically good for talent diversification efforts. When sponsors are looking into diverse pools of talent to bolster employees, they help form diverse talent pipelines by making sure employees are not overlooked. Lockett also said that sponsorship helps employees gain exposure within a company.

“Great work is important, but organizations are made up of people,” Lockett said. “And without people in the organizations seeing your great work, it doesn’t mean much.”

Formal sponsorship programs are crucial talent development tools, but they can also present challenges. One of which, Grant-Anderson said, is the fact that oftentimes sponsorship can turn into mentorship. AT&T is on its second iteration of its formal sponsorship program. In its first iteration, matching leaders with employees often resulted in their relationships straying from the sponsorship mold.

“There was a tendency for those relationships to really devolve into a mentorship, because you’re really coming across someone that you don’t really know, you’re spending time getting to know them better, understanding their strengths and weaknesses, where they want to go in their careers, and then it just sort of naturally goes into that, ‘Let me give you some tips on how to be successful,’” Grant-Anderson said.

From there, what is supposed to be sponsorship can turn into mentorship. She said the most important aspect of establishing a formal sponsorship program is to explicitly define these relationships. Leaders check up on sponsors to ensure they are truly advocating for their protégés and to ensure they are performing at their best.

AT&T’s current version of the program puts the company in charge of facilitating the connections. It hosts “key leader meetings” where leaders present and discuss the work of protégés. Black, white, Asian, Hispanic and Native American team members are often presented separately so leaders can see an accurate and diverse cross-section of the company’s talent.

Because of these conversations among leaders, natural and organic relationships and connections begin to form. Grant-Anderson said oftentimes one leader will bring up a potential protégé, and another will express interest in sponsoring them or connecting them to someone else within the company who they would be a good match with.

Lockett said that in order to assess these programs, a company must first define success.

“Does it mean a promotion?” Lockett said. “Does it mean that people look at various nominations? Does it mean that we have a diverse mix? We have to incorporate all of that thinking into our programs.”

He said that ADP also looks at turnover as an important factor when assessing the program’s success to ensure it is truly helping employees stay and grow in the company.

Formal sponsorship programs specifically help promote diverse talent within companies. Stroud said leaders at Hilton ask sponsors who they are working with and may challenge them to broaden their horizons if their sponsor slates seem to lack diversity. Data-wise, Lockett said ADP assesses the success of its sponsorship programs by looking at its talent pipelines. ADP looks at three factors regarding these pipelines: the readiness, level of experience and diversity of its members. Thirty-two percent of ADP’s senior executives are women and 23% are people of color. Both are important metrics to keep in mind because sponsorship programs are intertwined with leadership development and the rest of the organization’s mission.

“What you’re trying to do is ensure that you’re thinking of this holistically and not just as a one-off program,” Lockett said.

Grant-Anderson said AT&T also tracks its pipelines by performing an annual review to identify high potential talent and diversity, and then keeps track of promotions and lateral movements within the company. Stroud added that Hilton measures similar metrics to assess the success of its programs in creative diverse talent pipelines.

Formal programs can help people move their careers forward faster — especially for women and people of color. Affinity bias (people’s tendency to gravitate to those most similar to them) is a reality for every human, but when organizations ensure they’re intentionally helping people form relationships with those different from them, they can successfully bring diverse talent to the surface.

“We are trying to break down those barriers and ensure that we don’t have this unconscious bias … That we expand our aperture and look at people for the value they bring to the organization and how they get results and ensure that they get the feedback and coaching that they need to be successful,” Lockett said.