Our Chief Executive, Lara Newman, writes about the recent roundtable hosted at LocatED on the importance of early career sponsorship

Last week, at our offices I hosted a roundtable event with a range of people from across the public and private sector to explore how sponsorship impacts career trajectories.

As background, the Property Leaders Board exists to use a collective voice to advocate for the Government Property Function. It is made up of those leading estates, workplace and property functions across government departments and related ALBs. The Shadow Board is a group of professionals of all grades, again from the property function. Shadow Board representatives attend the Property Leaders Board and aims to bring diverse perspectives to the decision-making process. Each Shadow Board member also acts as a reverse mentor for senior Property Leaders through a Mutual Mentoring initiative. I am on the Property Leaders Board and also act as Senior Sponsor for the Shadow Board.

This event came about for two reasons: sponsorship was an aspect the Shadow Board wanted to have a conversation about and also, Real Estate Balance, which LocatED is a member of, has sponsorship as one of its commitments which member Chief Executives, like me, sign up to.

I have to say, the event was even more illuminating than any of us had expected and threw up a load of further questions on the subject.

If, like many of the people we have been chatting to, you’re not sure of the difference between mentoring and sponsorship, mentoring is a supportive action and can be characterised as being a more passive form of career support where the mentor may provide guidance and advice to the mentee on how to navigate challenges. Mentors can be internal or external to the mentee’s organisation and at any level – not necessarily more senior but has the experience to provide help on specific aspects.

Sponsorship, however, is proactive and interventional. The sponsor is in the same organisation as the sponsee and advises on very specific career choices and how to advance in the organisation. The sponsor advocates for promotions and stretch assignments; provides opportunities to connect with influential others and work on highly visible projects; and has some real influence over the sponsee’s career and usually a direct stake in many cases.

Herminia Ibarra, the Charles Handy Professor of Organizational Behaviour at the London Business School, writing in the Harvard Business Review, summarised this nicely. She outlined the many degrees of sponsorship and different kinds of support: advocating, connecting, opportunity giving and strategising – sharing information that helps sponsees figure out a route to get ahead.

At the event, we heard from many participants about their experiences of sponsorship – from those who had benefitted from having a sponsor for 30+ years to those who had only just started one. All who had been sponsored recognised the immense benefits of the relationship and were intent on giving back.

However, there was an extremely interesting theme that ran through people’s stories – most didn’t initially realise that they were being sponsored. Indeed, the sponsor/sponsee relationships that we heard about tended to emerge organically and over time. There is a sense that the sponsorship occurred seemingly by chance. Should we look to see what we can do to remove the element of chance? Or does forcing the issue make these sponsor/sponsee relationships less effective? As I have already noted, most agreed that making a formal pairing was not the way their experiences had started.

Additionally, those in some specific professional roles at the event – in this case legal and town planning – were clear that sponsorship had never been a part of their career development. We wondered if this was because of the very structured nature of the way their careers progress – it seemed odd and also reflected comments I have heard from others at LocatED in similar roles when we have discussed this internally. Something to probe further we thought.

So, what does this all tell us about the importance sponsorships play in cultivating a diverse workforce? From the conversation, it also appears that sponsorship is less prevalent within the public sector. Improving sponsorship opportunities should help improve diversity at senior levels, something which we need to do in the profession in both the public and private sectors. Linked to this, we also talked about whether it was easier to strike up such relationships in smaller organisations, and a lot of the positive experiences that were shared were indeed in smaller, entrepreneurial companies or smaller teams in larger companies. This is maybe because there is greater visibility of those at an earlier career stage or individuals that show promise for promotional and development opportunities. Again, this is something for us to explore further.

So, how do we embed a sponsorship culture so more of this happens? How do you ensure a company mindset that encourages sponsorship, even if it is organic and more informal?

All attendees felt that the important next step in making more GOOD sponsorship occur is raising awareness of what sponsorship is and how it can manifest itself rather than setting up a formal framework; much like how mentoring has become a thing in many organisations. This increased understanding will help ensure that people at all levels feel empowered so seek out sponsorship, while those with experience and the position to have a meaningful impact know enough to want to give back.

And on that note, huge thanks to all of you that gave up you your time to make the event such a success. Watch this space as we work through some of the challenges and questions raised on the day.