“Mentors talk with you. Sponsors talk about you.” — Heather Foust Cummings, Catalyst Research Center for Equity in Business Leadership
9 years ago I started my first tech summer internship. I was so excited. I got placed in the quality assurance team and wrote automation tests. Whilst I enjoyed testing, during my internship I really wanted to experience being a software developer to see which I liked better. A month into my internship, my manager held a meeting with me and asked me if I would be interested in moving to a development team.
It was many years later that I learned the reason why I got asked to move to a development team. A colleague had spoken to my manager and let my manager know that they were impressed by my work and by my enthusiasm. They knew I wanted to try development, and suggested to my manager that I move to their team.
This is one of the earliest examples of sponsorship I remember experiencing.
To get the full picture as to why mentorship isn't enough, I recommend reading and/or listening to Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women in the Harvard Business Review. To summarise:
Our interviews and surveys alike suggest that high-potential women are overmentored and undersponsored relative to their male peers—and that they are not advancing in their organizations. Furthermore, without sponsorship, women not only are less likely than men to be appointed to top roles but may also be more reluctant to go for them.
Telling your mentee how you got to where you are doesn't translate into your mentee being able to follow your footsteps. It's unlikely that the exact same opportunities that were available to you are available to them. You were in the right place in the right time, and to add to that hopefully you didn't have to deal with glass ceilings, conscious or unconscious bias and impostor syndrome. So how can your mentee follow in your footsteps? The answer is, don't be a mentor...
Sponsors don't just talk to you, they help you get there. Now you've understood why sponsorship is valuable, you might be asking yourself, "How can I be a sponsor?".
In the literature, a sponsor is generally described as having to be "senior". Having a "senior" sponsor is great, but from my experience and from my story above, anyone can be an amplifier. When you see someone do something well, don't be quiet about it. Make sure that everyone (or the right people) know about it so they can be recognised for their achievements.
Early in my 20s I read Meg Jay Ph.D.'s book The Defining Decade . This was when I first learnt about "weak ties". The term was first coined by sociologist Mark Granovetter and describes people who we know distantly, like friends of friends. Weak ties know about opportunities we don't because they move in a different circle of people. As a sponsor you can make introductions to connect people who otherwise would never have met, which might lead to opportunities that never would have happened otherwise. (Find an excerpt of that chapter here.)
If you want to perform the ultimate act of sponsorship, give someone "Stretch Opportunities". The whole thread by Mekka Okereke is a must read, but to summarise:
Mekka Okereke@mekkaokerekeA stretch opportunity is a project, scope, or responsibility, that as a little bit beyond what someone has done before in your context.
A good stretch opportunity should be challenging, but not overwhelming. You want the person to stretch, not break.17:02 PM - 19 Jan 2020
I am a great believer that people learn and grow by doing, much more than by hearing how other people did it. Apart from being an opportunity for growth, stretch opportunities serve to prove what that person is capable of, in a world where potential is not enough.
Thank you to my sponsors who believe in me, who lift me up and push me forward to reach my full potential. Being a sponsor takes courage, but actions are louder than words.
Hi I'm Erica and I've been working in the software industry for 9 years and have been coding for 15 years. In my career I've worked predominantly as a Backend Java Web Developer, but I'm not afraid to do whatever is needed to get the job done, from Frontend to DevOps. I love building products and understanding what I'm building and how to make it better. I ask a lot of questions. I love working in a team. I am often glue. When I'm not coding, I love reading, speaking (I'm a Toastmaster!) and travelling.
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