Three Things Every Good D&I Executive Sponsor Must Do
Getting asked to executive sponsor a diversity and inclusion project is an honour, but it isn’t all smiles and speeches.
It’s a signal that your team believes you ‘get it’ and can effect change. Both of those things require action to fully realize the value your team sees in you.
1. Identify Your Relationship to the Team Behind the Initiative
Executive sponsorship is the number one indicator of a business initiative’s success, so your work matters. There are many ways to be an executive sponsor in any initiative, so consider the needs of the team or person that asked you to be the sponsor when identifying the role you will play.
If the person who asked you to be a sponsor is:
Junior but ambitious → become an Advisor, offering professional guidance for the project. Simply being someone people can go to for support is already beneficial for inclusion projects.
A D&I expert but unfamiliar with corporate politics → offer a Strategic lens to get plans executed by helping them navigate business priorities and “speak business” to present things in a way that will resonate with executives.
A group of employees with relatively little seniority → be a Connector within the organization and advocate for their plan.
An experienced team or person with a full plan → become Vocal to make the plan widely known and use your social capital to get additional buy-in, often by modelling the behaviours yourself.
Before offering support, be aware of your skills and limitations an don’t commit to something you can’t deliver. Similarly, the team or person who asked you to sponsor cannot expect you to offer everything. It’s best that the conversation of what type of sponsor you’ll be is mutually discussed between the needs of the team and what you can offer.
2. Be Present as a Sponsor
On top of what you offer to the D&I team, you have a public role as the executive sponsor.
Make Connections for Others and Educate Yourself
Leverage your network to offer connections where appropriate. This may be to outside connections to help with initiatives or within the organization to further empower the team.
On the flip side, explicitly look for diverse networks that you can learn from.
To expand your learning:
Attend events held by diversity-focused groups
Ask your team for educational connections in their networks
Follow folks on social media who have different identities and experiences from you.
When you go about this, listen to every story that comes your way; even if they don’t make sense to you at first, absorb what you can and ask questions where possible.
Making connections also extends to recruiting. Ensure you are advocating for reaching into diverse talent pools and shift hiring practices to be more holistic about what the individual brings on top of baseline skills for the job.
Champion Initiatives and Push for Budget
Getting things done in business takes money. Whether you have your own discretionary budget as an executive or the project has to pitch for every dollar it gets, support them. Depending on your expertise, you could also help the team look into ways to become self-sustaining through agreements like assigning additional budget for hitting certain success metrics of the D&I strategy.
In the planning portion for events, advocate for accessibility in all forms - for example, physical accessibility like ramps or elevators, alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, or using gender neutral - to ensure that the event welcomes everyone.
Do your best to attend initiatives or events put on to support diversity and inclusion, whether overt or subtle. Your physical presence not only will attract more employees because they see you modelling the behaviour, but it speaks volumes about your support. If you can’t attend, and even if you can, send out an email inviting others to join or send a calendar invite. Your voice is powerful in your organization, so it’s important to understand the impact of small actions.
3. Use Your Voice to Make Impact
Your voice is as much about what you say as what you don’t say.
Sponsor individuals from different backgrounds and challenge other executives to do the same.
Take a serious look at the people you’ve advocated for in the past. Are they all pretty similar? Any noticeable gaps? These may not even be identity-based, for example you may notice you’ve only ever advocated for sales people in the company but never customer success or engineering. Going forward, make a conscious effort to diversify the group of employees you sponsor (“sponsorees”).
When diversifying your sponsoree base, remember:
You don’t have to publicly shame yourself for not having a diverse group of sponsorees in the past. Admitting mistakes and showing vulnerability is a good thing to do as a leader, but this isn’t about public humiliation.
Sponsorship is about connecting with individuals to talk about career goals and then offering stretch challenges, making connections, guiding through learning and development, and then advocating for promotion or ensuring they get recognition for hard work.
Where you can, hold others accountable to sponsorship and challenge them to diversify their sponsoree base. Throughout this process, champion and celebrate people who exhibit inclusive behaviours while also delivering in their jobs; don’t go too overboard, though. There’s a difference between being an inclusion champion versus simply being respectful. Not calling someone a slur or derogatory term, for instance, is not something to be celebrated as ‘exhibiting inclusion.’
Speak Out on Issues and Educate Others
When sponsoring a diversity and inclusion project, not everything will be fun, engaging, or a worthwhile challenge. Sometimes there will be issues that come to light, whether they just happened or you just realized they were issues, and you need to speak out as an executive sponsor.
Speaking out can be difficult depending on your company culture. This could mean highlighting the issue at a team meeting or at a quarterly company meeting. It could also mean something more subtle like one on one discussions or bringing things up in executive meetings.
If you need to take up an issue privately, ensure that any affected parties are aware of the steps you’re taking even if you can’t share all the details. If you bring something up publicly, make sure you have next steps ready to communicate so that you don’t cause a panic or a vacuum-effect where everyone gets angry or anxious waiting for the next step.
Remember that speaking out is also an opportunity to educate others. It’s not about publicly shaming them, but helping the whole organization move forward and build an environment where everyone can do their best work.
A lot goes into a diversity and inclusion project, much of the work emotional, and sponsorship is no different. While every business initiative involves people on some level, D&I is incredibly people-focused and can raise a lot of sensitivities. As you follow the steps in this article and carve your unique sponsorship style, remember you’re working with humans, yourself included.
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