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The importance of sponsorship

I’ve recently listened to Carla Harris’ TED talk “How to find a person who can help you get ahead at work”. In it she speaks about the importance of having sponsors who help advance your career. I believe that sponsorship at work is fundamental, especially for people from minority groups. In this article I will summarize what for me were the main takeaways of her speech. You can also find the link to the TED talk below.

Many companies call themselves meritocratic. They claim to have systems in place to evaluate employees based on their performance, and that performance alone (free from bias) defines a person’s career advancement.

However, meritocracy is very hard to achieve. If performance evaluations are done in an environment where there is a human element involved, they are (by definition) subjective. I still haven’t heard of any evaluative processes with no a human element, and therefore a measure of subjectivity, involved. Examples of this measure of subjectivity may include: who is presenting case, what they say, how they say it, how evaluator interpreted it, etc

Therefore a good performance alone often isn’t enough. Those who make it to the top, usually complement their good performance with support from a sponsor.

Caveat: Before going on, I want to make the distinction between sponsor and mentor. A mentor is someone who gives you tailored advice (tailored specifically to you and to your career aspirations) but that’s as far as his/her/their support goes. A sponsor is someone that carries your interest, it is someone that spends his/her/their “valuable political and social capital” on you. Carla Harris puts it in this way: “A mentor is a nice to have, but you can survive a long time in your career without a mentor, but you are not going to ascend in any organization without a sponsor.”

Carla Harris explains that there is a currency system, and 2 types of currencies, at work: Performance currency and Relationship currency.

  • Performance currency is created by your delivery: what was asked and a little extra. Delivering above expectations will get you noticed. It will get you paid and promoted. It may even attract a sponsor (everybody loves a star). However, if this is not the case and your performance didn’t raise visibility in a way that attracted a sponsor, you can leverage the relationship currency.
  • Relationship currency is generated by investments made in people in environment. You can’t ask someone to use their hard earned personal influential currency on you if had little/no interaction with them. It is important to invest time to get to know people in the workplace and, more importantly, give them the opportunity to know you – and increase your chance of sponsorship

When thinking of potential sponsors it is important to evaluate if they have the following characteristics: (1) a seat at the decision making table (2) exposure to your work – to have credibility (3) a voice / the power to make it happen.

Having said that, and understanding the importance of having a “powerful” sponsor, I want to add that I believe that anyone and everyone can eventually be a sponsor. I think that it is important to build strong relationships with everyone at work, because you never know who will get promoted, who would talk to who, and this things happen you want it to be people who believe in your potential and would serve as formal/informal sponsors.

Strong, meaningful relationships at work, elevate us all.

I earlier mentioned that having a sponsor is particularly important for people from minority groups. This is because of unconscious bias (particularly affinity bias) in evaluation processes and all the other barriers that people from minority groups face every day. It is harder for them to make it to the top; and when/if they do it is ahrder for them to prove themselves worthy of that position.

I want to share with you Carla Harris’ final words for diverse top leaders: “To the would-be sponsors that are in the room. If you have been invited into the room, know that you have a seat at that table, and if you have a seat at the table, you have a responsibility to speak. Don’t waste your power worrying about what people are going to say and whether or not they think you might be supporting someone just because they look like you. If somebody is worthy of your currency, spend it. One thing I have learned after several decades on Wall Street is the way to grow your power is to give it away. And your voice is at the heart of your power.”

For more information on how to build a more inclusive culture where sponsorship of diverse groups is encouraged please reach out to us at:
Complete TED talk: