By Deboleena Dasgupta – EMBA London, 2023
‘What is the best way to ask my employer for sponsorship?’
I often get this question from several EMBA aspirants and peers. So, here’s my story and my perspectives around preparing for the conversation and navigating it effectively.
Whether financing your EMBA is a challenge for you or not, money, like everything else, has an opportunity cost. For an employer, sponsorship, whether full or partial, is always a coveted reward. But for an ambitious corporate professional, apart from just the financial angle, the most rewarding element of employer sponsorship is a sense of assurance that your company values you and that your bosses care.
I was eager to do an EMBA at LBS that I was quite sure in my head that I would plunge in whether or not I got funding support in the form of any scholarship or sponsorship. Therefore, I started the employer conversation with an absolutely ‘nothing to lose’ mindset. And now when I think back, I feel this attitude truly helped me in making a pitch that was genuine, thoughtful and came from a place of clarity and confidence.
- The ‘equity’ factor
Some companies like McKinsey or Citi, use sponsorship as a part of their value proposition for fast-tracking talent, but in most other companies, this may be a support or recognition that is discretionary and awarded on a case-by-case basis. For my company, this was a very rare discretionary approval and I believe that my credibility and my personal brand definitely played a role in securing employer support. So, do reflect on how your critical stakeholders see you. Do they see you as someone who can make things happen for them? Are you someone who can be stretched for complex, business critical assignments?
- Up, Close & Personal
The relationship of trust with your seniors is a given pre-requisite. I remember having conversations about my dreams, my personal aspirations, my career goals, my vulnerabilities with my line manager in several instances – in formal and informal settings. So, when I asked for her support, it didn’t come to her as a surprise. She could see exactly where it was coming from, and it was easy for her to read the big ‘why’ and sense the passion behind my request. Do not underestimate the element of human connection here.
- Be strategic
Connect the dots well so that the purpose behind your request is well understood by the decision-makers. The more self-clarity you have, the more holistic your rationale becomes. Based on my own career goals and stakeholder feedback, I had a clear development plan that have a few tangible actions around strengthening my leadership brand, mastering an entrepreneurial mindset and driving growth through innovation. So, I had all the clarity. But what I also did was to articulate it in my pitch stating clearly how I will use my EMBA to meet the development goals agreed between me and my line manager, mentor and sponsor.
- Researching pays off
Different companies have different policies around Professional Studies and Qualifications. Be thorough with your homework before you start the conversation. At the least, pull out that HR policy document. In my case, I went deeper on research to find out my company’s past approval statistics for top league EMBAs. I also spoke to a few members of executive leadership to sense-check their perceived value of an EMBA from LBS. I even spoke to a couple of senior leaders who sponsored their team members to understand the ROI they may have observed in terms of development and transformation of the sponsored individuals.
- Be pragmatic
Remember in a tighter cost environment that most companies are in post-Covid, securing these approvals will be more complex. In my case, yes, I wanted this support from my organisation, but I was thoughtful and considerate about the cost challenges we’re in. Therefore, I first soft-landed my request with my boss in one of my quarterly development conversations. There will always be other approvers in the matrix, so it was an iterative dialogue that took more than a month to come to fruition. Try alternative routes of finance such as a loan, and other LBS scholarship categories suitable for your profile.
- ‘I win, you win’ attitude
This ultimately is a form of negotiation. So why not look at it as ‘problem solving’? So, think about these key questions. What is in it for them to sponsor you? What are the challenges and impediments that can pose a threat to its strategic goals? And what value can you bring in? What role could you play in solving for those problems if you secure the sponsorship?
- Framing the conversation
‘How many slides should I ideally make for the business case?’ is another very typical question that pops up. I would rather leave that to you to decide based on who your audience and your decision-makers are. Think about what their communication style is, and what their preference around receiving information is. I went in for a light touch first and then gradually firmed up the dialogue along with supplying a logical flow of information. Two critical questions you would want to help them answer through your business case:
a. Why should they sponsor you?
b. Which business challenge will you help them solve and how, if you are sponsored?
- Be flexible & future-focused
If you work for a big company, at times you may think the cost of a masters programme looks as small as a rounding error for a giant organisation. But do remember, when your company looks at this decision, they are thinking how big this is as a proportion of their talent development budget and what could have been the other best alternatives to spend this money. So do not chase a binary solution (full or nothing) – come to a midpoint that helps both sides. If you have lock-ins in your contract or clawback clauses, in my opinion, don’t overthink, take one step at a time.
- Don’t give up!
When you pitch for the first time, your employer may take some time to process the information or discreetly buy time to decide whether to sponsor you or not. Don’t push too frequently or too hard, but at the same time, if you hear a ‘no’, hear that as ‘not yet’ and have the persistence to nudge them further. This will bring out the seriousness of your intent and will also give them an opportunity to review the decision.