As long as humans are still deciding who gets the top jobs at companies, there is no such thing as 100% meritocracy. What this means is that being smart, meeting expectations, and working hard with your head down aren’t going to supercharge your career.
Wall Street powerhouse Carla Harris had this “aha” moment in 1988 when she was at her first “roundtable,” or what’s known as the year-end evaluations that determine whether someone–from analysts all the way up to managing directors–is placed into a top, middle, or lower bucket. It was in this closed-door meeting that Harris, a vice chairman at Morgan Stanley, realized that the “bucket” you’re placed in, which determines the bonus you earn, is based on whether someone at the table advocated for you.
Harris told the audience at her Ted Talk in 2018 that the experience made her question who would argue on her behalf. She needed a sponsor–someone who has the power, connections, and influence to open doors–unlike a mentor who gives tailored advice–the good, the bad, the ugly–but aren’t necessarily your champions.
“A mentor, frankly, 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,” Harris said in her Ted Talk. “It is so critical that you should ask yourself regularly, ‘Who’s carrying my paper into the room?’ And if you can’t answer who is carrying your paper into the room, then I will tell you to divert some of your hardworking energies into investing in a sponsor relationship, because it will be critical to your success.”
Just how do you identify and invest in the kind of relationship that gets you noticed by senior-level executives and considered for big promotions? Below, seven women share how they got the sponsorship that shaped their careers:
Be the “moving train” that people want to get on
Tiffany Aliche is a financial educator, founder and CEO of The Budgetnista, author, podcaster, and even helped pass a law in New Jersey that mandates financial lessons–from credit to investing–for middle school students.
In 2013, Aliche met a woman name Alicia on Twitter and the two decided to grab lunch. At the time, Aliche was still in the early stages of building her business. She believes she likely caught Alicia’s attention because of the volunteer work she was doing in Newark after losing her job during the recession as a schoolteacher.
What Aliche didn’t know was that Alicia and her colleague, Dawn, who she brought along to the lunch date, both held senior leadership positions at a major financial firm.
“They were just really nice,” Aliche says. “We just ended up chit-chatting, having a great lunch, and I never thought anything of it.”
About a week later, Alicia asked Aliche to speak in a panel at the MegaFest conference in Dallas.
“I had just started and no one had flown me anywhere,” says Aliche. “[Alicia said], ‘we’re not going to pay you,’ but I didn’t care.”
After that conference, Alicia and Dawn continued suggesting Aliche for bigger speaking roles, which led to work with other brands. During one particular eye-opening moment, Aliche had secured a speaking gig through Alicia at a conference launched by Mika Brzezinski from NBC’s Morning Joe.
“I’d never done anything like that before and I was so nervous, but I did a really good job, so [Alicia] asked me, ‘Do you want to do the rest of the tour [in other cities],'” says Aliche. “Back then, I was charging $1,500 for a speaking engagement. And I remember wanting to ask for more when [Alicia] asked me to do this tour. I really wanted to ask for $5,000 but I was so scared. I was thinking, there’s no way they would go for that. There’s no way, Tiffany. Just ask for $1,500.”
Aliche ended up charging $1,500 for the remaining speaking gigs. At the end of the tour, she ran into Dawn, who said to her, “That was so good, Tiffany. But why’d you ask for $1,500? Do you know how much we pay the white boys to do what you just did? We pay them $10,000.”
Aliche remembers saying, “Dawn, people aren’t going to pay me that,” to which Dawn responded, “Who do you think signs the check? I wish you would’ve come to me and asked me.”
“My stomach dropped to the knee,” says Aliche. What Dawn was saying was, instead of the $7,500 that Aliche made at the end of the tour, she could’ve made $50,000 if she had come to Dawn for help.
“That day, I went to my website and changed my speaking fee to $10,000,” she says. “It took three years until someone came close to paying that, but I realized if you don’t have it out there, you’re never going to get it.”
How she attracted the attention of a sponsor: Aliche says if you are doing the work, there are people working on your behalf in the background. You may know some of them, while others you may never realize they’re the reason you got the call.
She says, “I find that people like to get on a moving train. So that’s really what it is. Whether it’s because you’re donating or working really hard. People want to see that you, on your own, are progressing forward because people are busy. If you’re already moving forward, they know that if they help you that it’s not going to be a waste. There’s nothing worse than investing in a depreciating asset. You are a stock on the rise. If you can clearly illustrate that you’re a stock on a rise, you’re going to have folks that are going to jump in.”
Aliche says that she’s even had people tell her they were waiting for her to get to a certain level before they would jump in:
“There are people who are waiting for you to level up before they invest in you because they don’t want to waste their time, their energy, their money, their influence, their advice,” she adds. “You have to do the work. If you’re waiting for someone to come save you, then you’re least likely to be saved. When you do [the work] you’ll be surprised by the people that you attract.”
Be a problem solver in other people’s eyes
When Lorraine Hariton, president and CEO of Catalyst, started her career, the word “sponsorship” was yet to be part of the business vernacular. Still, Hariton says she had people who helped change the course of her career.
One of which was her former boss, Bob Finocchio at Rolm, a Silicon Valley tech company that was acquired by IBM.
“When I worked for Bob, I was pregnant with my second child and about to be promoted to branch manager,” says Hariton. “To make things easier during my pregnancy, Bob orchestrated a placement for me at the local branch office near where I lived. He also held the branch manager position vacant for eight weeks while I finished maternity leave so I could assume the role.”
This was 1988 when the conversation around maternity leave was nonexistent, and male leaders holding jobs open for new mothers was unheard of.
How she attracted the attention of a sponsor: Hariton believes enabling yourself to have a sponsor means being involved with people who can have influence on your life to make a difference in a meaningful way.
You never know what will come out of those connections. “Sometimes people sponsor you because they are trying to solve a problem for themselves and see potential for you to help them do that,” she says. “It can be a very symbiotic relationship.”
Because Hariton has benefited from sponsorships in her own career, she makes it a point to sponsor others. In 2005, she had that opportunity after being introduced to Sheryl Sandberg by a mutual friend.
She says, “We had a great discussion about our career goals, and she told me she didn’t have many mentors at the time. We ended up establishing a friendship. At the time I sat on the board of an organization called the Entrepreneur Foundation. They had an annual event focused on corporate giving. I suggested and sponsored Sheryl to speak at the conference as keynote. Sheryl was new to Silicon Valley and Google at the time, and this was an opportunity to broaden her visibility and for us to showcase a truly extraordinary woman leader. The suggestion ended up being great for both of us.”
Communicate your career ambition and goals
In the late 1990s, Kay Willis, now global chief people officer at law firm Hogan Lovells, was working to create an in-house MBA program for the firm she was working at in partnership with the Warwick Business School in the U.K.
Willis worked hard helping leaders at the firm make business cases for why their MBA should be paid for by their employer, but she never considered that she should be among the applicants. That is, until a partner at the firm suggested it.
“It was a light-bulb moment in my career,” says Willis. “I never, ever thought of putting myself forward. In terms of where I was in my life, I just had the second of my two children. I was in a client-facing role and it just never occurred to me that it was something that I could do. It was the most transformative thing I’ve done for my career.”
Willis says it was the confidence that this sponsor had in her that helped her see herself in a different light.
How she attracted the attention of a sponsor: Willis believes that when you are very clear about your career aims and ambition, people are happy to do what they can for you.
“One of the things I’ve learned through the years about sponsorship is that it is a long-term relationship,” says Willis. “There is certainly an obligation on the person being sponsored to do as much as they can to help the sponsor do a good job for them. It’s very much a two-way dynamic.”
To cultivate a culture of sponsorship at Hogan Lovells, Willis makes sure that equal access to sponsorship is available, especially to underrepresented groups at the firm.
“Sponsorship is not just for the few, but, for the individuals who want to proceed in their career, they should feel that they have the opportunity to be sponsored too,” she says.
Be honest and authentic; first impressions matter
Nancy Quan, chief technical officer at The Coca-Cola Company, remembers a point in her career when she was looking to become a member of a board but didn’t have any prior experience. At a meeting for the 30% Club, which is made up of a group of executives committed to better gender balance, Quan met one of the speakers. It turns out, she ended up sitting next to the same speaker on a flight back to Atlanta. The two spoke the entire flight, and Quan says she is “fortunate that this person who I had just met spent the time to get to know me better.”
Following the trip and after a couple of phone conversations, Quan’s new friend became her sponsor when she recommended her for a board role, despite Quan having no previous experience.
How she attracted the attention of a sponsor: Quan says if you’re trying too hard, you can end up seeming overly ambitious and turning people away. If Quan hadn’t shared her career goals and journey, her sponsor might not have realized that she could open any doors for her. And if Quan had not been truthful and authentic about the fact that she didn’t have prior experience, her new friend and sponsor might not have felt the need to use her influence to help Quan with her career goal.
Put relationships above all else
While working at the University of New Mexico, Kymberly N. Pinder’s boss, Chaouki Abdallah, was both her mentor and sponsor. He was transparent about the challenges of leadership and gave her pep talks before difficult situations. He made sure she was on committees that would allow her leadership qualities to shine.
How she attracted the attention of a sponsor: Pinder, now provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, says under Abdallah’s guidance she learned to effectively listen and made sure she pursued opportunities for professional development. Pinder says, oftentimes, people enjoy being helpful, but first make sure you have formed and built a genuine connection and relationship. This kind of relationship takes thoughtful effort and time.
Be intentional when identifying potential sponsors
After Jessica Palm had worked a year at the Kansas City Area Development Council as a public relations specialist, her CEO challenged her to create a talent attraction and lifestyle marketing initiative.
At the time, Palm, now a vice president at the organization, was 23 years old and knew that winning the trust of executives at the company and business leaders representing top employers in the region was going to take a lot of effort. She turned to Martin Mini, a chief marketing officer at her organization, for help.
When Palm ran into roadblocks securing funding for her initiative, Mini advocated on her behalf both internally in the organization and externally in the community. Today, the initiative is recognized nationally as a top talent attraction and lifestyle marketing effort in economic development, says Palm. She believes that Mini’s sponsorships is also one of the driving forces behind the five promotions she’s had in the eight years she’s been at the organization.
How she attracted the attention of a sponsor: Palm learned about sponsorship in the workplace in 2007 in a women’s studies class in college. The class taught her that being intentional when identifying a sponsor is critical in a career. In many ways, the onus of a sponsor relationship falls on the person wanting to be sponsored. When Palm knew she needed support for her new initiative, she identified Mini, a senior leader in the organization who she knew had the influence she would need to get the job done.
Focus your energy on understanding senior leaders
Before launching dating app Coffee Meets Bagel, Dawoon Kang worked in the corporate world–first at Avon Products, then later at JP Morgan. She was lucky in that her boss at Avon became her sponsor who provided her the experiences and opportunities that won her companywide recognition. Kang worked on high-visibility projects and her boss made it a point to show her work to important influencers in the organization.
How she attracted the attention of a sponsor: Kang was lucky in that her sponsor at Avon was her boss who believed in her growth and had influence. If you find yourself in a situation where that isn’t the case, Kang suggests scheduling coffee meetings with senior leaders and think of it almost as a “career study.”
“I did this at JP Morgan when I interned,” she says. “I literally went to all the executive directors and some managing directors to ask about their job–what they enjoy, [don’t] enjoy–as a ‘study,’ and everyone loved it.”