Making an Impact: GroupM’s DEI Sponsorship Programme
How GroupM’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) sponsorship programme creates a career support network for people from traditionally marginalised groups
During the 2022 Top Employers Institute’s Best Practices Week, I had the opportunity to speak with Amy Walker, Inclusion and Diversity Manager for GroupM, a UK-based media investment company and certified Top Employer, about the company’s new DEI sponsorship initiative.
GroupM’s desire to radically change the industry and facilitate a new generation of leadership was the catalyst for the programme. They chose to focus on sponsorship because it’s an effective way to disrupt systemic barriers that prevent underrepresented groups from accessing top leadership positions. The pilot programme lasted for 18 months, involved 35 sponsees, and saw half of the participants promoted, with all of them moving forward in their development.
Here are some of the highlights from our discussion. You can also find a link to our full discussion here.
How Sponsorship Is Different from Mentorship
To begin our discussion, Amy explained how sponsorship programmes impacted her personally. “I'm on the autistic spectrum and I also have other conditions – physical, mental health conditions. I can attest that the sponsorship I've received from leaders in our business and the inclusion and adjustments that I've had as a disabled person have allowed me to have a really accessible environment that works for my needs.” Amy recognises the opportunities she received as a result of the sponsorship programme have helped her get to where she is today and make her passionate about creating similar opportunities for others.
Understanding the differences between sponsorship and mentorship is essential when considering a programme like this for your organisation. A mentor can be anyone within or outside the organisation, who possesses a particular set of skills and experience. They generally offer guidance and support and take a broad view of their mentee’s career growth. The relationship can be formal or informal, and it is usually not measured with any kind of performance or impact metrics.
In a sponsorship programme, having a formal structure with support and guidance is key to achieving measurable results. Sponsors are senior members of a company invested in supporting talented junior staff. They promote the sponsee directly, actively open doors to new experiences, leverage their network, and build industry connections to help the sponsee gain access to opportunities. Really, it’s about taking a very active role in supporting the sponsee’s career advancement. Success is measured not only by promotions but also by lateral moves within the company or network, which provide valuable experience for future leadership positions.
Roles & Responsibilities
In GroupM’s programme, the sponsee manages the administration of the relationship – making sure that they follow up on action items, reaching out to new contacts, and keeping their sponsor in the loop about their progress. Both parties must prioritise the relationship and meetings to achieve results.
Open and honest communication is a key element of a successful sponsorship relationship. To foster this dynamic, a sponsor needs to create a safe space so that their sponsee doesn’t feel defensive or criticised when discussing their experiences. They can work through the sponsee’s self-limiting beliefs from that foundation and develop a clear picture of the desired career path.
During the programme, GroupM identified several key responsibilities for sponsees:
- Manage the relationship with their sponsor.
- Be open and honest.
- Identify barriers, including self-limiting beliefs.
- Develop a career vision and goals.
- Work hard on identified action items.
Key responsibilities for sponsors were also identified:
- Create a space safe for conversations.
- Leverage their network.
- Provide guidance on navigating company politics.
- Actively open doors to experiences and opportunities for advancement.
- Champion their sponsee repeatedly and visibly.
Results & Insights
By the end of the pilot programme, half of the participants were promoted, and all of them made significant progress in their career development so that they are ready to advance when an opportunity arises.
One of the most exciting insights we discussed was that many sponsors noticed that their sponsees work incredibly hard – twice as hard as their peers. Helping them unlearn that behaviour and devote more energy to developing their personal brand and networking became part of the sponsor’s role. “I can think of specific people and see the journey they've been on and how they've changed and the kind of gravitas and confidence they have in themselves,” Amy shared, “And the way they can kind of promote themselves and make that influence felt through the company is really inspiring. It's been brilliant to watch that happening.” Seeing individuals experience these kinds of changes after participating in the programme and subsequent positive ripple effects in the company is one of Amy’s favourite parts of her work.
GroupM will continue developing the sponsorship programme. Their next steps are to:
- Make the programme permanent,
- Include senior leaders in the pool of sponsors by default,
- Have more targeted sponsor/sponsee pairings,
- Build a training framework,
- Partner with a wider agency group, and
- Bring sponsors/sponsees together across the whole group regularly.
Advice for Companies Interested in Starting a DEI Sponsorship Program
To wrap up our conversation, I asked Amy what advice she would give to other companies interested in starting a sponsorship program. First, she said, it's important to establish clear roles and responsibilities before the programme begins. Doing so will prevent confusion and ensure that everyone involved is on the same page. The programme needs to be actively managed, with ongoing feedback and regular check-ins to make sure that everything is progressing smoothly.
Next, it's essential to consider how people are selected for the programme. Choosing participants solely for the sake of diversity will do more harm than good. Instead, Amy says, “It's crucial to focus on high-potential talent. There's no point running a programme like this with people who aren't ready or don't want to move up.” Search beyond traditional sources of talent and consider individuals who may have been overlooked in the past.
Training and support are vital to help participants confront their biases and step out of their comfort zones. Cultivating a safe and supportive environment is key. Managing expectations is also important. Make it clear that there are no guarantees of promotion or advancement.
Finally, there are numerous resources available to help companies get started. Amy described one that particularly stands out to her, “There’s this organisation called BRiM that’s made up of industry partners and they’ve just created the most brilliant guide. It’s got everything you need in there – so much rich, thought-provoking information about what might go wrong, how to make it a safe space, and how to be aware of cultural differences.” Part of the reason it caught Amy’s attention is that it was created by Black individuals who have participated in sponsorship programmes themselves. Guides like this one can help organisations ensure that their programmes are inclusive, effective, and impactful.
Update to Group M’s DEI Sponsorship Programme
Since my conversation with Amy during Best Practices Week 2023, several exciting updates have been made to Group M’s Sponsorship Programme. After seeing positive results from their first Sponsorship Programme with improvements in the representation of high-performing talent from minority ethnic groups, Group M began to see significant moves from these employees through promotions.
Amy noted, "Overcoming years of bias that have kept minorities from equal representation in top leadership positions requires intentional intervention. One tool that has proven to be highly effective when implemented well is sponsorship.
“A sponsor is a person who has power and influence, who can talk about you in the rooms you’re not in, put you forward for opportunities, introduce you to key decision-makers, and help you navigate your company.”
The first cohort of sponsees completed their 18-month programme in 2022. Of the 37 sponsees, half of whom were women, 57% of sponsees were promoted during the 18-month programme, with a further 10% moving into a new role or gaining greater responsibility - all the while building contacts, skills, confidence, and a career path towards promotion
GroupM’s second Sponsorship programme will launch later this year, targeting a wider group of underrepresented talent and explicitly targeting the areas of improvement identified from our Gender Pay Gap analysis.