A Mentor Will Get You Coffee, a Sponsor Will Get You Promoted

Notes from SRCCON:WORK on building a diverse leadership pipeline

(WOCinTech Chat)

More than two years ago, we started one of our most ambitious initiatives in the digital department of the New York Times: to create a more diverse and inclusive workforce. We first focused on increasing the number of women in our technology department—demonstrating that we can make a difference in the recruitment and advancement of women in technology and the environment in which they work—and then broadened the scope to focus on making digital more diverse. It’s an initiative that has no finish line, and we continue to stay engaged and constantly look for new ways to ensure all employees have equal opportunities to grow and thrive.

Last year, we created a mentorship program and engaged hundreds of our digital employees. We’ve made progress largely in the lower and middle rungs of the career ladder, but the top hasn’t changed much at all, so this year we’re piloting a sponsorship program in technology. How does a company roll out a sponsorship program? While we have some ideas, we have even more questions—so we tapped into the collective brain trust at SRCCON:WORK in December.

The session focused on the benefits of sponsorship vs. mentorship, and then we worked together to create a framework for a sponsorship program.

Sponsorship has a positive impact on pay, retention, ambition, and advancement—particularly for underrepresented groups. We discussed what sponsorship is and how it’s different from mentorship, which we distilled into this list:

  • It’s a two-way street, both sponsor and protege have skin in the game
  • Sponsorship is active, while mentorship is passive
  • The goal is advancement of a protege as opposed to development of the mentee
  • There’s greater focus and bigger commitment with sponsorship
  • Sponsors know the protege, believe in the protege, understand the value of a protege, and are willing to take a bet on the protege
  • Sponsors elevate proteges; sponsors are very senior, and they both publicly advocate for their protege and find or volley opportunities to them.
  • Sponsors provide cover so proteges can take risks
  • Sponsors know how to navigate the system; they know the key players and politics, and can help the protege get from A to B.

As for proteges, here’s how to earn a sponsor:

  • Performance is key
  • Be trustworthy
  • Be committed to the company and therefore worth the investment
  • Be a self-starter and ambitious
  • Promote initiatives, priorities, and legacy of sponsor
  • Bring something to the table the sponsor or team doesn’t have, and make it visible and indispensable

Having a culture of sponsorship or advancing micro-sponsorship would be valuable to most companies. For the majority of our session, we had attendees break out into groups and focus on four key parts of a sponsorship program. We asked everyone to think about how to scale a program at companies where the goal is to develop a diverse leadership pipeline, and assist in succession planning. Here are the things we thought were important to think about and explore when building a program:

Benefits of a sponsorship program

  • Make the business case
    • Understand why and how a sponsorship program would benefit your company
    • Who benefits?
    • Why would senior leadership want a program?
    • What are the company’s needs now and in the future?
    • What does the current leadership need/lack? What are the succession plans for leaders?
  • What does success looks like and how will you measure it?
  • Determine participants
    • Who has access to the program?
    • How will you motivate people to be sponsors, and how will you make it something that potential proteges really want to do?


  • Who are the proteges?
    • What makes a good protege?
    • What level?
    • What’s the commitment of the protege?
  • Selection process and criteria
    • Do proteges apply?
    • Is there a selection committee?
    • What are you looking for—love of learning, loyalty, humility, performance, diversity?
  • What does success look like for proteges? Promotion or expanded responsibilities in a set time frame?
  • Structure
    • Length of program
    • Is it solely a 1:1 protege/sponsor relationship or is there a cohort?
    • What would it mean to have a cohort? Is there additional training and coaching offered?
  • The messaging, particularly to those who don’t have access to the program


  • Who are the sponsors?
    • What makes a good sponsor? How do you know if they’ll be good at it?
    • Is this part of a manager-in-training program?
    • What’s the commitment of a sponsor?
  • How will you incentivize sponsors?
  • How will you evaluate sponsors?
  • What is the process to pair sponsors with proteges?
    • How do proteges and sponsors get to know each other? Maybe speed mentoring or coffee dates?

Managing the program

  • How do you run it?
  • Who’s involved in getting it off the ground and ensuring its success?
  • Who administers the program and keeps it running?
  • How will you measure success?
    • Evaluating the program on an ongoing basis
    • Evaluating the proteges and sponsors on an ongoing basis
    • Regular checkins with sponsors and proteges
    • What are the metrics? Velocity of people being promoted (vs outside program)?
    • How much will the program cost? In time and money?

Here’s the transcript of our SRCCON:WORK session, if you’d like to see.

Want more? Here are some references we found helpful:



  • Erin Grau

    Erin Grau is the VP of Organizational Development at Away. Before that, she was the New York Times’s first Vice President of Transformation, tasked with building and optimizing systems, processes, the interaction model, and culture. As co-chair of the Women’s Network, she co-wrote the company’s generous and inclusive parental leave policy. Erin also created and led the digital organization’s diversity & inclusion initiatives, largely focused on increasing the number of women in technology.

  • Cindy Taibi

    Cindy Taibi has spent almost her entire career in the Technology Department at the New York Times. Today Cindy is a Vice President in Technology, where her responsibilities include oversight of systems and technology solutions for print publishing globally, business systems, and infrastructure. She is also a founding member and currently co-chair of the Times’ Women in Technology committee, which is credited with several important initiatives at the company, including a very successful Mentorship Program in Technology.


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