Over on Twitter, Dare Obasanjo made an excellent point about the difference between mentoring and sponsorship:
One thing I see tech companies get wrong is that they think POC need mentors when what they actually need is sponsorship.— Dare Obasanjo (@Carnage4Life) June 9, 2020
A mentor is a coach whereas a sponsor advocates for their protégés to get them bigger projects & promotions.
Career tips? 👎
Career opportunities? 👍
I only learned about the difference a couple years ago when I was a sponsor in Pivotal’s official sponsorship program led by Natalie Bonifede. In the kickoff session, we discussed the differences between mentorship and sponsorship. That’s when I realized that I have both sponsored others and been sponsored throughout my career. Further, I realized that without being sponsored I would not have the career I have now. Sponsorship makes all the difference in the world.
Acts of sponsorship can be tiny, something as simple as making an introduction. Or they can be huge, such as pushing hard to get someone a particular job. A sampling of acts of sponsorship across the decades of my career (and in no particular order) includes the time when…
…a colleague recommended me to speak in his stead at a conference. That led to more invitations to speak, and as a result I got to see the world. If you’ve ever seen me speak at a conference, you can trace that opportunity back to Brian Marick suggesting my name to the EuroSTAR 2001 organizers.
…I was only a couple years into my career and my manager and her manager colluded to get me the biggest raise they’d ever handed out.
…I was consulting and a client negotiated me UP on rates saying, “You’re rate is too low; I can’t pay you that little.”
…I was a manager and went toe-to-toe with the head of HR to give an employee a bigger raise than HR believed I should give. It required an enormous amount of intestinal fortitude to hold my ground, but I did it because it was the right thing to do. To this day the employee probably doesn’t know what it took to get him that raise.
…my manager backed me in a dispute with a peer saying, “She has a really hard job right now and you are making it even harder. I want you to think ‘how can I make her job easier EVERY DAY.’” Without their explicit support, I would have had to continue spending energy I did not have fighting with my peer instead of doing my job.
…I told the head of a contract agency I did some work for that I wasn’t going to do another contract for him until he did right by one of my peers who he had wronged by not paying owed overtime.
…a colleague in another department recommended me for an open position that would have been a big step up for me. (My then-manager blocked the transfer. Whatever the opposite of sponsorship is, she did it. Don’t be that manager. I quit that job a couple months later because my manager’s actions made it quite clear she only valued me for what I could do for her, that I wasn’t going to get out from under her, and that she had no interest in helping me grow my career. It was over a quarter of a century ago but the memory still makes me angry. But I digress.)
…I funded three months of salary for an employee out of my budget so they could move into a role in another group when that group had a funding gap. At the time I was responsible for about 170 people, so three months of salary was a teensy fraction of my departmental budget. It was an easy thing for me to do, but it made the difference in enabling the employee growing into a new stage in their career while staying with the company.
Each example I’ve captured here reminds me of a handful more. There are just so many more stories: being nominated for a board; being nominated as a guest editor; speaking up for someone who was having interpersonal issues; arranging for a colleague to speak to the CEO about an important issue; introducing a writer to a publisher; quoting someone with attribution; recommending a book or a blog or a podcast. The list could go on and on. My point is that there are many types of sponsorship.
Sponsorship is any act that opens doors, creates opportunities, provides support, or amplifies a voice.
Anyone can be a sponsor. Even if you have no power and believe that you have little influence, you can still open doors for others. Such acts matter a great deal. Even if they seem small to you they may be exactly the springboard someone needed. You’re spending your social capital to help someone else on their journey.
Of course, if you happen to have power and/or influence, sponsoring someone can change their life. You can give them a boost up in getting that first job in a field, or a promotion, or funding.
Sometimes acts of sponsorship require courage. It can be scary to go against the grain, to open doors that would not otherwise open on their own. But that is when sponsorship can be the most impactful. I took a risk when I defied the contract agency. They could have dropped me entirely, and this was at a stage in my career when finding a job would have been problematic. But I was incensed at the way they treated my colleague and could not let it stand. The agency did the right thing and paid up, but they would not have if I hadn’t made a stink about it.
Note that sponsorship centers the attention on the person being sponsored rather than on the sponsor. In fact, because sponsorship so often happens in private conversations, behind closed doors, I probably don’t know about even half the times someone’s act of sponsorship opened doors for me. However I do know that my career has been shaped by those who sponsored me. And I have tried to pay it forward, sponsoring others.
The thing I need to do better is ensuring that I seek out and sponsor people who don’t look like me. That’s how we address systemic representation problems: not with big programs that are quietly defunded when the topic is no longer top-of-mind, but with ongoing, continuous, deliberate acts of sponsorship.
We have a big problem in tech. The lack of representation of Black people is tragic on multiple levels. Our industry is poorer for it and our software is worse for it.
Dare is right: sponsorship is critically important. And I can do more.
So I pledge to do more to act as a sponsor for my Black colleagues: to open doors, create opportunities, support, and amplify.
I invite you to do the same.