Flex your sponsorship muscles at every career stage
Whether early in your career journey, or a senior executive, opportunities abound to advocate for others and accelerate progress for all women. “Opportunities to lead right now from where you are today are plentiful if you look at the micro-moments to elevate, expand and build the voice of others,” says PepsiCo VP of Diversity & Engagement for North America and WFF Board member, Merary Simeon.
POWERFUL SPONSORSHIP OFTEN OCCURS BEHIND THE SCENES
Many critical decisions impacting your career will likely happen when you aren’t even in the room. It might be a formal people planning meeting with senior executives mapping out promotions and succession planning. Or even a quick elevator conversation where colleagues discuss a project you’re leading and its impact. WFF Board member and PepsiCo VP of Diversity & Engagement for North America, Merary Simeon, calls that covert sponsorship.
Speaking up for others
“Sponsors advocate for you, promote you behind the scenes and act as powerful spokespeople for you and your accomplishments in a way you cannot do for yourself and when you don’t even know it’s happening,” Simeon says.
Covert sponsorship occurs daily via simple comments, observations and questions. Simeon has observed the power of taking action in micro-moments by simply asking a question. She has witnessed leaders during a meeting ask whether questions posed when considering women for advancement were different from those asked about men. “That query alone changed the conversation and opened the door for greater consideration of many women leaders, none of whom were in the room at the time,” she says.
That’s one reason diversity among sponsors is critical, Simeon adds. “If I’m at the table as a woman of color, I can offer a different perspective on how leadership manifests in different cultures. I can help illustrate how the leadership capabilities being sought are present in a colleague but perhaps show up in a slightly different way from what you might be accustomed to seeing,” she says.
Sponsorship opportunities start early
We typically think of sponsorship as something that happens only at a very high level with a senior executive advocating for an emerging leader. That is often the case and a powerful accelerant for career progress. But Simeon also points to the plentiful opportunities to lead from where you are today.
Every time you suggest someone be considered for a stretch assignment or new position, share someone else’s story and even introduce people to others, you leverage your position to provide more opportunities.
Leaders in a position to sponsor others must genuinely get to know people in their organization and become familiar with their work, Simeon advises. “Leaders who take the time to have lunch with someone more junior or to ask probing questions about projects emerging leaders have taken on will be far better positioned to advocate for others on their way up,” she says.
At the same time, those seeking sponsors need to not only perform at a high level to get noticed but intentionally build their connections and be clear about personal goals. “At every level, your connections are like a spider web that must be leveraged as a way to transport your career,” Simeon explains. “You have to do your homework, look at where decisions are made related to your career goals and then build meaningful bridges to those people.”
“Everyone needs to be intentional about plugging into an organization’s power dynamic and look beyond their organization for key contacts as well,” Simeon advises. She feels this is especially true for women of color who may have had less access to sponsorship and be more likely to rely on exemplary work to speak for itself. “For example, there was a woman in the industry who I knew I could learn from and, when I saw her at the WFF Leadership Conference, I sat next to her at a session and started a conversation. We still keep in touch.”
One of the most valuable aspects of overt sponsorship is that it can help protégés develop a bigger vision for their future. “Sometimes, we’re so busy just doing that it’s hard to look up and see beyond our current capabilities,” Simeon warns. “A sponsor can help you see that you’re meant for more and then help open the door to those opportunities.”
The author of Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, agrees. She says sponsorship is the one way to land top appointments and that sponsors can expand your own perception of what you can do as well as promote your visibility.
Simeon urges every woman to make sponsorship part of her career plan as both a giver and receiver. “The more women leaders excel, the more role models we all have, and the more women who are there opening doors of opportunity for all of us,” she says.