By Melissa J. Anderson

As many recent reports have pointed out, sponsorship is how individuals move up the ladder in companies. A sponsor is a powerful senior ally who advocates for individuals they believe in. Gaining access to sponsors is critical for getting the stretch assignments that lead to advancement.

Acknowledging that these relationships are the real force behind who gets promoted, especially at more senior ranks, has led companies to develop programs to increase the sponsorship of women and minorities – people who powerful individuals within companies (usually white males) may overlook.

But the key factor is that sponsorship is all about individual relationships. It is difficult to create corporate programs that encourage individuals to build relationships that are based on trust and power. These programs seek to institutionalize relationships that have been, in the past, invisible or political.

The challenge is not simply to get one person to sponsor someone they might not normally think about – it’s to get lots of people to sponsor new faces. Scaling up sponsorship requires a cultural shift in attitudes and the acknowledgement on behalf of senior individuals that they must be part of this change.

Here are three factors that companies need to implement in order to successfully scale up sponsorship on a programmatic basis.

1. Understand the Risks for Leaders

Recently Ernst & Young released a report discussing best practices for overcoming the challenges associated with sponsorship, “The Corporate Sponsor as Hero: Advancing Women Into Leadership Roles.”

The firm suggested that companies need to recognize the inherent risks that leaders themselves face in supporting individuals who, traditionally, may have been overlooked for leadership.

For example, the report discusses work done by Noor Abid, Ernst & Young’s Assurance Leader for the Middle East and North Africa. Based in Bahrain, the report explains, “…he is leading efforts to overturn customs that hinder women’s progress in business.” This takes courage, EY says. “A sponsor puts his or her reputation on the line to advocate and often advance women for leadership positions, often in the face of significant resistance.”

2. Hold Leaders Accountable for Sponsorship

EY also recommends keeping track of advancement metrics related to sponsorship programs, in order to ensure executives will take them seriously. For example, the report says:

“At Chubb, executives are accountable for increasing the number of women in senior ranks. The process is built into Chubb’s management practices, such as ‘very robust’ succession planning and mentoring programs that transcend borders. While there are no quotas, there are performance metrics for expected outcomes…”

Keeping track of program outcomes, and communicating to leaders that they will be evaluated on these outcomes, will compel them to participate meaningfully.

3. Express that Talent Management Transcends HR

Finally, the study also points out that, particularly at the upper levels of a company, leaders must understand that they are a critical piece of the talent management pipeline. By giving them a stake in succession planning, the future of their company becomes part of their job as well, not just something for HR to figure out.

The report explains, “Getting to that point involves a multi-¬faceted plan with champions at all levels, and across it all is a high-¬level version of sponsorship that acts on behalf of the organization to create the environment and imperative for sponsorship of specific individuals.”

For example, it continues, at Harris, executives make time for strategic talent management about every quarter. “Three or four times a year… executives come together for a strategic talent review. Leaders across each of the business units inventory the pipeline of talent and skills in light of current or anticipated openings among the leadership ranks.”

By creating an environment in which leaders have an understanding of sponsorship as a means to influence the future of the company, sponsorship moves from an individual relationship to an institutional program.