A mentor, a sponsor, and a coach: most career resources, conferences, retreats, etc. will tell you that you need at least one, if not all three, of these key relationships to thrive at work. A mentor leverages their experiences and knowledge of your company and industry to give you candid feedback on how to thrive in your role and grow to the next level. A career coach isn't necessarily familiar with your specific industry, and instead are trained to approach your goals and problems from a counseling and solution- oriented angle with your individual needs in mind. As Coach Paula Edgar lays out, a coach can "help you assess, develop, and reach the strategic goals that you have not been able to achieve on your own." Meanwhile, sponsors take on a differentiated role in your career because they have clout and the ability to fast track your career by getting your work seen by decision makers and influencers.
Frequently, we think of sponsors solely as high ranking leaders and executives. They can be difficult to cultivate relationships with and getting on their radar can be a job within itself. While I'd agree that those relationships are indeed necessary, I'd argue that in this jungle gym working culture, where paths to success and influence are becoming increasingly unorthodox, there are ways we can be "sponsors" for our peers.
On Sunday night (Jan. 8th), Donald Glover showed us how this could be done. He won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a musical or comedy TV series for his work in his show Atlanta on FX. During his thank-you speech, Glover gave a shout-out to Migos for creating the song Bad and Boujee, simply because he liked it. And in less than a day, this led to an increase of 243% in Spotify streams for Bad and Boujee.
Donald Glover, who raps under the name Childish Gambino, is not a leader or someone Migos reports to or works with; instead, he's more like a peer. But in this case, Donald Glover acted as a sponsor for Migos, using his moment of influence to call attention to his friend.
Glover wasn’t featured on the song and arguably had nothing to gain, but gave it a shout-out anyway. He may have future moments like this, on a national platform that's widely watched and talked about, or he may not. His "power" in that sense isn't as predictable as the traditional sponsors we are used to hearing about. But in this moment, when he had the influence, he used it, and it's been compelling and impactful for his peer. And it's true, generally, our power as peers may not be as consistent as senior leaders, but we do get those moments to put someone else on the radar of others, to propel them forward and to use our attention to bring attention to someone else.
Even if you aren't expecting a golden globe in the near future, you can still be a sponsor for your peers. Here's how:
Constantly share information. Share pertinent articles, share relevant job opportunities, share information about grants and awards, share insights to managers you've worked with before, share secrets! Train a peer in area where they have a skills gap. Let go of the limiting belief that sharing takes opportunities away from you and instead embrace an abundance philosophy. Understand there is enough room at the table, and even when it looks full, you can pull up a chair for someone else. Develop a network that is based on sharing.
Pass on the opportunities you aren't a great fit for to someone in your circle who is. When someone reaches out to you with an opportunity, it's usually because they think highly of you. If that opportunity isn't a great fit for you leverage their opinion of you (your influence) to recommend someone in your circle who would be a great fit.
Make giving constructive feedback a habit. Who doesn't love hearing they killed it and are awesome? I know I do. But if all I ever heard was that I was great, I would struggle to improve. What's great about peer feedback, is our peers have a unique insight to us and can observe our habits with a different lens. I recently went shopping with a colleague and noticed her saying sorry in lieu of please to a sales associate several times in a few minutes. I caught her doing it and said girl why are you apologizing for spending YOUR money? are you doing that at work? Turns out she was and without knowing it, it was affecting the perception of her confidence and authority. We made a plan to help her crack the habit. Help your peers crack the habits that are holding them back. Feedback is a gift.
Be consistently there, for the good and bad times. Shouting out people's achievements and being there to support them during the good times are great but it's even more important to support people when they're struggling. That doesn't mean you are sending them money to help support them financially but you're giving them advice, sharing resources or sharing their information with people that could help them as well is doing your part.
Be an advocate. Recently, a colleague was tapped to be on a small panel but quickly realized that she would be the only woman there and asked the organizers to add another woman and gave them a name, mine! I wouldn't have been tapped to be on this panel if it wasn't for her advocating for me. Additionally, their lack of diversity wouldn't have been brought to their attention if it wasn't for her as well. This has happened multiple times with the last year alone and each of those opportunities have been impactful for me. Frequently, when this happens, the organizer has a blindpsot, and not only are you calling attention to this problem in a respectful manner, you're giving them a solution. It's a great way to increase diversity and sponsor a peer at the same time.
Ask and offer. During my CUP Fellowship, we ended each session with an activity called "ask and offer." In our small closed network, we opened the floor for everyone to speak up and share something they needed and something they could do to help someone else. One woman who worked with a training organization offered to let the trainers amongst us present to her group. One woman, who was in transition, asked for opportunities to be shared with her. She ultimately landed a new role. This tradition has carried on with our group since and we continuously to grow for this giving to and receiving from each other. Make this a habit at your party brunches, pre-games, lunches, wherever.
Does the C-Suite / executive leadership still matter? Absolutely. We need those relationships. But we don't have to look to the C-Suite only as the only owner of opportunity. Since the C-Suite is still very homogenous and has blindspots, unconscious biases etc, if we only look there, we are really limiting our ability to change who gets opportunity. When you sponsor a peer, not only are you investing in your relationships, you are creating social impact.