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Sponsoring Diversity

Deborah J. Bowen, FACHE, CAE

Ample research is available on race disparity in the healthcare workforce, particularly in our highest levels of leadership. ACHE’s own data show that, while racial and ethnic minorities make up 32% of our U.S. hospital patients and 36% of the population, only about 16% of C-suite executives are racial minorities.

There’s also significant evidence that, beyond the moral imperative, diversity in executive leadership positions is good for the bottom line. Profits increase, employee satisfaction and retention are higher and, more importantly, safety and health outcomes improve. 

The data makes an unassailable case; however, as an industry, healthcare still struggles to achieve widespread progress. We will need to implement proven methods to realize demonstrable change.

One such method is sponsorship to help diverse candidates navigate the journey to the executive level. 

Successful cross-industry models demonstrate that following key guidelines around sponsorship have helped move the needle in a positive direction, making this a powerful tool for a diversity and inclusion strategy.

Best practices to keep in mind include: 

Know Your Role
Sponsorship and mentorship are often used interchangeably, however, there are key differences. Beyond giving advice or guidance, a sponsor uses his or her influence to be an active advocate for the candidate’s career. The success of the candidate is a direct reflection on the sponsor, typically resulting in greater commitment to the relationship and its outcome. 

Both sponsorship and mentorship are valuable and necessary tools for developing leaders, but sponsorship increases accountability. Sponsors are champions who, both publicly and behind closed doors, recommend their candidate for projects and promotions. These actions have the added advantage of making an individual’s support more visible, creating a tangible stake in the candidate’s success.

Be an Ally
Informal sponsorship happens frequently—like recommending a friend or colleague for a job opening. At the same time, it’s likely true that our networks are populated by “those like us,” thereby reinforcing the leadership structures in place.

Becoming an ally to a colleague from an underrepresented group can help you learn and prepare to support them while leveraging your own groups and networks to effect change. More directly, sponsoring diverse candidates can influence the outcome of the opportunities before them. The point is to make an intentional effort through your own influence and actions to increase representation in management and help address a long history of inequitable access to career opportunities.

Make It Official
As an individual, you can take steps to ensure you’re an informed and effective sponsor. As an executive champion, you can also achieve broader change in your organization by starting or supporting a formalized, inclusive sponsorship program. Like patient safety, readmissions or any complex and long-term issue we manage in our field, systemic change requires that we create infrastructure, set goals, and use metrics and data to address diversity and inclusion. 

A structured program can help senior leadership identify, grow and retain promising diverse leaders, which, again, research shows supports the bottom line. It also gives both the sponsors and candidates “permission” to set aside time, particularly if results are tied to corporate goals and individual performance evaluations.

Measuring progress is important to promote success and identify potential barriers. Examples of practices include providing codified training and coaching for sponsors; establishing benchmarks that make certain all candidates are getting access to people and opportunities that align with their career objectives; and conducting regular check-ins with sponsors and candidates to ensure the relationships are beneficial and positive. 

It will take an individual and collective investment of our profession to move more diverse executives into leadership ranks, including the C-suite. When well-implemented on a personal level, and used as part of an organizationwide, measurable strategy, sponsorship can help talented, diverse leaders reach their highest potential. The result will be more inclusive and sustainable health systems that are better equipped to fully execute equity in health for all.


Deborah J. Bowen, FACHE, CAE, is president/CEO of the American College of Healthcare Executives.

This blog post is repurposed from the article of the same name originally published in the September/October 2020 issue of Healthcare Executive.

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