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Advice / Job Search / Networking

Don't Have a Higher-Up Opening Doors for You Yet? That's OK

The airwaves are filled with wisdom about sponsors—powerful individuals who not only mentor you, but who actively help you succeed and advance. If sponsors grew on trees, one sentence would sum up these pearls: Identify, cultivate, deliver, and by Jove you’ve got it!

But, sigh, they don’t grow on trees.

I was a young associate at McKinsey & Company in the days before sponsors. Ironically, some the most powerful partners in the firm found me. I genuinely believed in them, worked hard to help them, and treated them with kindness and respect. In turn, they taught me the ropes, assigned me to their clients, and cheered me up when I was down. All that time, I didn’t know they were my sponsors. But they knew it. They also knew that it was practically impossible to succeed without help from others.

Fast forward to this year. I had just spent a day facilitating a workshop with women and possible sponsors. So far, so good. A few weeks later, the client contacted me with urgency. She relayed that a dozen women wanted a follow up session—on sponsorship. My first thought was, “Oh no! I already taught them that!” Breathe, Joanna! I quickly reframed, “How curious! Smart people with tough questions. I’m gonna learn something here.”

As preparation, I asked for the participants’ sponsorship questions and work challenges. Their list looked something like this:

  • “I’m a mom of young kids, already working at capacity. How do I find the time to build a relationship with a sponsor?”
  • “I have little exposure beyond my boss. Does that mean he has to be my sponsor?”
  • “Work is overwhelming right now. Is this right for me?”
  • “What if I don’t want to have a sponsor? Do I need this?”
  • “I’ve only been here for a short while and I don’t know many people! What should I do?”

At the start of our session, participants shared how they were feeling: “Unsure, but hopeful,” “overwhelmed,” “run down,” “guilty,” and “curious.” Well, the gift I thought I was giving seemed to have had the opposite effect. Were sponsors just another hurdle in people’s way?

We needed to dig in to find out. So I invited each woman to pose her challenge, solicit input as “a fly on the wall” in listen-only mode, and then share one insight learned. Using this process, we reached a solution each time.

The truth about sponsors (or anything, really) is that often we hold ourselves back through limiting mindsets. Perhaps one of these rings true for you, too. And if so, here are the solutions we found.

“I have to have a sponsor to get ahead.”

Some of the participants saw sponsor relationships as another work test. Several worried that company leaders would judge them poorly. Put that out of your mind! Sponsors are optional. Not everyone is at the point where they are ready. Not everyone wants to move on to the next level. Undoubtedly, you have many hurdles to pass, but this is not one of them.

“Sponsors must be senior and very powerful.”

Some companies are lean at the top, and so it isn’t possible for everyone to have a senior executive sponsor. Look around you. Cast a broad net to spot people who know your work and believe in you. And then expand your thinking using “two degrees of separation.” Perhaps your boss or colleague is your sponsor and, in turn, will work his or her own sponsor network on your behalf.

“I have to have a sponsor now!”

Several participants panicked, assuming the race was on. I’m sure that when senior leaders recognize the potential of sponsorship, they are excited to achieve impact right away. That said, unless you already know someone who could be your sponsor, count on at least a few years to demonstrate your worth and cultivate the relationship.

“I can’t meet the expectations of a sponsor.”

One woman shared that the executive who offered her a new assignment might be a sponsor, but that he put her in a tough position. Her ambition conflicted with her desire not to disappoint, which she surely would if she accepted the assignment on top of her day job. A fellow participant elegantly spotlighted her real mindset: “I’m on the task force that asked for your help. We hoped that you would do one small piece of work. Why are you thinking that you have to do it all?”

“Sponsors add 10 hours to your work week!”

A related mindset was that it would take hours upon hours to sustain a sponsor relationship. Two participants confided that they were on the verge of burning out and couldn’t take on more. By reframing the question: “How can we build sponsor relationships in just one more minute per week?” we shifted that mindset to “sponsor relationships are an integral part of my work week.”

In the end, we shifted mindsets and filled the room with oxygen. Talking through real challenges didn’t eliminate fear, but it helped us find creative solutions. When we finished the session, one woman said, “I’m feeling less overwhelmed. I can do small things and take it slowly.” Another shared, “I feel energized. We can help each other on our work issues.” And a third responded, “I’m relieved! Sometimes I’m just too hard on myself.”

If that’s you, start by giving yourself time. Cultivating a sponsor relationship is a journey of small steps. Step 1 is to identify your own mindsets about sponsors. Then, get to know the people who have exposure to the work you’re doing. Those individuals may be important to your success. Consider one action you can take today to strengthen each relationship. If you don’t know, ask what you can do to inspire their trust in you.

I started with small steps back in 1981, and as it turned out, the people who got to know me then helped elect me to senior partner a dozen years later. Looking back, I never would have guessed it.

Photo of coffee cups courtesy of Shutterstock.