Sponsors not only have seats at the table – they control the invite list

Joyce Johnson

There is a commercial out about African American female pilots at Delta Airlines. When I first saw the story, chills of inspiration and community ran down my spine: The fact that there are African American women flying aircrafts, supporting one another and sponsoring programs for young girls is powerful and necessary for future success in that profession and industry.

However, upon looking further into the topic, a story shared on ABC News mentions that just 150 Black women in the United States are pilots – less than 1% of the flight deck (Kaji, Luna & Sweeney, 2020).

The airline industry does not stand alone in this severe oversight of diversity and inclusion. According to a Fortune article published this June, there are only five African American CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (Wahba, 2020). Working in the sales profession over the past 20 years, I have observed gaps in diversity firsthand – and I’m not the only one noticing.

Many companies have posted D&I or DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) plans this year. Many of those plans include creating mentorship programs to support recruiting and internal promotions. However, is mentorship enough? Are there enough mentors, resources and access, and are those efforts enough to achieve equality?

From mentorship to sponsorship

In the business environment, we speak often about the importance of having mentors (experienced and trusted advisers). Lately, the discussion has shifted to the importance of sponsorship and having sponsors (someone to advocate for you). Sponsorship is the key to true inclusion because it helps level the playing field. Because sponsors are leaders, they not only have seats at the table, they control the invite list too.

However, sponsorship continues to serve privileged groups, leaving one to question the E in DEI. Mentors have mentees, while sponsors have protégés. History shows us that corporate sponsors adopt protégés that look like them: relatives, friends, children of friends, referrals from the Alma mater, fraternity brothers and sorority sisters (Pinsker, 2015). Thus, predominantly straight, white sponsors are picking protégés from straight, white, homogeneous groups.

The issue is that other individuals already within an organization, with stronger backgrounds and qualifications, never get invited to the table. They often retire or leave the organization without reaching their fullest potential, participation, engagement or impact. Logic leads me to believe that if there were diverse sponsorship, the list of Fortune 500 CEOs would be more colourful.

Representation from the top down

Recently, I was introduced through a friend to a VP of a billion-dollar tech company to discuss my work in the diversity and inclusion space. Recent social unrest across the United States had led him to take a step back and self-assess: Was his leadership team adept at responsibly hiring through a DEI lens? He concluded that he had not supported or sponsored diverse talent in his role as a leader. I sensed that he felt as if he had failed to create diversity within his leadership team. I assured him it was normal for him to support individuals that look like him – it was an easy pattern to fall into. Although I’ve mentored diverse groups over the years, I’ve followed the same pattern. The majority have been people of colour, as those are the individuals that look like me. They are the people who are referred to me by family members or other business professionals seeking African-American representation to share and guide them.

What career professionals could do to help clients find sponsors
  • Help them find the potential in existing networks and encourage them to strengthen those ties.
  • Brainstorm what kind of relationships would benefit the client: consider industry, position and client goals.
  • Help the client understand that these connections require long-term commitment and varied work experience. A sponsor will not arrive overnight.
  • Encourage clients to be brave and straightforward: suggest they ask their mentors if they are willing to advocate for them when openings arise.
  • Have your client be vocal and make clear what their career goals are to their peers, co-workers and higher-ups.

I also learned from the VP that his business had low representation of women, and the executive team had created a strategy to deliberately hire women in leadership roles. That’s incredibly important: candidates want to see someone who looks like them in a position of power. When you see someone who looks like you in a successful position, it raises the bar for what you believe you can achieve. When employees who are women or people of colour only occupy low-level positions, the aspirations of candidates shift accordingly.

A woman in a leadership role sends a message to all the women in the organization that there are now opportunities for sponsorship and a possibility of them moving into a leadership role. A person of colour in a leadership role sends the same message to all people of colour within the organization. I recommended that the VP follow the same plan of action used to target the female candidates to hire a person of colour. Hiring or promoting a diverse leader could assist with recruiting, diversity initiatives and ultimately creating an inclusive environment.

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The myth of a ‘quick fix’

The harsh reality is that without a sponsor – without someone advocating for you and saving you a seat at the table – if you’re from an underrepresented group, you probably won’t get that promotion. I’ve applied for roles in the past where I knew I was more qualified, interviewed better, and submitted a plan for engagement and success, yet the position was filled by a protégé, a relative or close connection to the hiring leader. They received a nudge for the role while I was overlooked. That experience left me frustrated and for a period of time, I completely disengaged from the sales industry. This disengagement is what happens in many organizations when there is not an equal playing field for all candidates.

Now I take calls with leaders who want to invite me into their organization for an inclusion “quick fix.” I’m often astonished by their oversight: Yes, there is a possibility you may be able to hire diverse candidates externally, but that’s just checking a box. Why companies think that they can create a one-year plan for inclusion after failing at inclusion for decades before baffles me. The road to inclusion is a long one. It will take time for organizations to seat the right people at the leadership table, allowing them equal access to impact the business. If an individual is hired to check a box but not allowed to play the game, the organization will remain stagnant. I believe sponsorship at the right level of the organization is the best tool and strategy to lead organizations to create a truly diverse, equal and inclusive organization.

Like Delta Airlines, most organizations are pursuing the first step toward equality: awareness. Look around your organization. Analyze the power structure and what your leadership looks like. From there, figure out where existing talent lies within the organization and restructure accordingly. Sponsor the diverse talent that is already there.

Joyce Johnson is passionate about investing in and supporting college students and recent graduates. She is a speaker, mentor, business consultant, sales champion, 7x author and she is the founder behind Why Sales Network, which provides development tools and resources to sales professionals, college students and companies.


‘Delta’s first black female captain: ‘Taking off was the thrill of my life’.’ (n.d.) Delta. https://news.delta.com/deltas-first-black-female-captain-taking-was-thrill-my-life

Kaji, M., Luna, N., & Sweeney, S. (2020). Diversifying the flight deck: Less than 1% of US pilots are Black women. ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/diversifying-flight-deck-us-pilots-black-women/story?id=72880810

Pinsker, J. (2015). Like Father, Like Son: How Much Nepotism Is Too Much? The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/06/nepotism-mobility-same-jobs-fathers/395567/

Wahba, P. (2020). The number of black CEOs in the Fortune 500 remains very low. Fortune. https://fortune.com/2020/06/01/black-ceos-fortune-500-2020-african-american-business-leaders/