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To Build Diverse Leadership, Formalize Mentorship and Sponsorship Programs

To Build Diverse Leadership, Formalize Mentorship and Sponsorship Programs

Mentoring programs specifically designed to support the advancement of diverse talent can encourage underrepresented employees to stay or grow in your organization.

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To Build Diverse Leadership, Formalize Mentorship and Sponsorship Programs

The evidence is everywhere: Despite decades of commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) goals, even with the increased fervor of the past year, C-suites in corporate America—and the leadership layers below them—still fail to represent the diversity of the nation.

Written in collaboration with

Written in collaboration with


When growing representation, executives often find that recruiting and hiring are the easy steps. In order to retain that talent and help them reach the C-suite, companies need more fair and equitable coaching, development, and review processes.

Mentorship and sponsorship are both critical factors in the long-term success of employees. A mentoring relationship is one in which a senior employee provides a more junior employee with career coaching, advice, and support in navigating their professional development. Distinct from mentorship, sponsorship is a relationship in which a senior employee directly advocates for a more junior employee’s advancement within the organization.

Mentorship and sponsorship can play a significant role in fostering inclusive workplaces and ensuring the retention and advancement of diverse and underrepresented talent. Success requires effective cross-race and cross-gender relationships. And to strengthen these relationships, companies need to provide mentors and sponsors with trainings focused on reducing negative stereotypes and promoting effective communication.

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Our research finds evidence that 10 specific tactics—some common, others underused—are particularly effective at advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace.

Why it works

On average, mentoring programs boost the representation of Black, Hispanic, and Asian-American women, and Hispanic and Asian-American men, by 9% to 24%. What’s more, one study shows that people of color who advance the furthest in their careers share a single attribute: a network of mentors and sponsors who have advocated for them along the way.

In order to set up mentors, sponsors, and their protégés for success, leaders must be intentional with their approach. Too often, companies rely on informal mentoring, expecting senior-level employees to take direct reports and junior employees whom they connect with under their wings. Mentors and sponsors usually gravitate toward protégés of their own race or similar backgrounds. For these reasons, formal programs are essential in creating equal access to mentoring and sponsoring opportunities for diverse and underrepresented talent.

Under a formal program, a mentor can give practical advice for the early career stages, while also offering emotional support related to the mentee’s lived experience. Later in the mentee’s career, it’s important for the mentor to provide access to relationships and diverse networks of people who can guide the way to the C-suite.

The adoption curve

About 70% of Fortune 500 companies offer mentorship programs. However, few organizations have optimized them to help achieve DEI goals: Most programs lack structure and training for cross-race relationships, and scarcely any formal programs are specifically focused on developing diverse and underrepresented talent.

Some leaders may believe that the best mentoring relationships form “organically”—that it is better to stay removed from matching protégés to mentors. However, like so many of the DEI practices that we’ve studied, formal structures and processes can be the best way to serve diverse and underrepresented talent.

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How Hilton took action

Hilton Worldwide’s Executive Committee Diversity Networking program pairs high-performing, high-potential women and Black, Latino, and Asian people in senior-director to senior-vice-president roles with executive committee sponsors, including the CEO, Chris Nassetta. HR consultants and a diversity team provide guidance on these sponsor-protégé pairings, although relationships can also form organically.

Mentors and their protégés are encouraged to meet on a regular basis. In addition, the company tracks the progress of participants and collects feedback from both parties. Managers have accessible online educational resources, and their performance is reviewed in part based on how they mentored or sponsored their direct reports. Since launching, the company has received numerous awards recognizing this work and 20% of the inaugural class of protégés has been promoted.

“Mentoring at Hilton is part of our leadership DNA, and we believe that every leader has a responsibility to engage and develop our rising talent,” said Kristin Campbell, general counsel and chief ESG officer at Hilton Worldwide. “Mentors are an essential part of professional and personal growth and can help you gain new perspectives and thoughtfully plan your career journey.”

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We work with leading employers to create inclusive talent strategies that deliver both social impact and business benefits. Through our data-driven approach, we help companies understand their current positioning and create customized engagements to help them achieve their goals.

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