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The journey begins when a young woman’s choices land her in an unexpected, uncomfortable situation.   She finds helpful friends, allies and enemies.   She triumphs by tapping internal strength she hadn’t previously discovered.

This is a story of successful completion of a “developmental assignment.”  A promotion, a job in a new firm, or a significant role in a turnaround.   Or maybe it’s a career change, or a foray into entrepreneurship.

It’s the story of Dorothy Gale, of Kansas and Oz.

And it’s also a story of sponsorship.    Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett leads the Center for Work-Life Policy, a private think tank.  She’s co-author of a Harvard Business Review research report, “The Sponsor Effect:  Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling”.

Sponsors are powerful advocates who give us promotions and opportunities to advance — possibly tapping their networks, offering career advice, performance feedback, and even input on executive presence.   A relationship with a sponsor makes you more visible.

Sponsors win when we win.   Early in a career, our performance may attract the attention of potential sponsors.  The Good Witch notices when Dorothy’s house rids Oz of the Wicked Witch of the East.  Willing to bet on the new player who has performed so favorably, Glinda gives Dorothy the ruby slippers.

Sponsors open their networks to us.   Glinda sends Dorothy to the Emerald City to meet Wizard of Oz, another powerful presence.

En route, Dorothy meets others who are seeking individual goals.   Naively sure of the Wizard’s power and helpful nature, she unifies her team.   The mission:  travel the yellow brick road to fulfill their personal goals.

Sponsors give us their clout when we need it.   Coveting the powerful ruby slippers, and angered by her sister’s death, the Wicked Witch of the West takes every opportunity to derail the group’s progress.   With the Emerald City in the team’s sight, she places a field of narcotic poppies in their path, inducing a possibly fatal sleep.  The Good Witch sends snowfall, energizing the group.

Sponsors make us visible.  Glinda’s sponsorship attracts attention.  “Curses, somebody always helps that girl!” rages the Wicked Witch as the group progresses.   Using her broomstick smoke to scrawl “Surrender Dorothy” across the Technicolor sky, she makes Dorothy a household name in the Emerald City.   (And I’ll come back to this.)

Sponsors don’t just grant us access. We must win it.   It’s not just a matter of hard work or performance, but an exercise in strategic relationship development.

Glinda’s backing, won through performance and evidenced by possession of the ruby slippers, is the price of Dorothy’s admission to the Emerald City.  She wins an audience with the Wizard only after revealing that she’s the Wicked Witch’s Dorothy.

Sponsors give us access to developmental assignments.  Having gained entree to the executive suite, Dorothy shows her mettle by making requests for her team.  The Wizard agrees to grant the requests once the group has retrieved the Wicked Witch’s broomstick.

Sponsors expand our belief in our own abilities.   At the journey’s nearly successful conclusion, the Good Witch tells Dorothy, “You don’t need to be helped any longer.”   The Wizard reflects on how each team member effectively created his own reward, each finding what he sought in the very actions used to succeed.

Sponsorship is different from mentorship.  The Tin Man, Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow offer Dorothy support without power.   A mentor provides encouragement, moral support, and navigational advice for the journey.  Hewlett and co-authors Kerrie Peraino, Laura Sherbin and Karen Sumberg suggest that mentors offer “backroom support,” in the form of career advice and feedback, but not what sponsors offer:  action.

This past year, capable executives in my circle shared information with me about the benefits of sponsorship: I didn’t really hear them.   Then I attended a talk by Hewlett, hosted by American Express.

Why did I close my mind?  It reminded me of mentoring “programs,” popular early in my career.  We don’t see many minority group members and women leading Fortune 500 companies:  mentoring programs have yet to prove their effectiveness by sending likely participants to C-level roles.

I also incorrectly perceived sponsorship as a corporate construct, not useful for business owners like me.

Gaining access in large companies can be like getting an audience with The Wizard:  small business owners need sponsors.   Entrepreneurs seeking capital, the shortest route to an investor is a sponsor who will ask her to read your business plan.   Want to speak at a conference?  If someone on the programming committee has already seen you in action, you’ll stand out in a pack of talented candidates.   What to re-enter corporate life after off-ramping for a few years?    The fastest on-ramp is someone who knows your work, and will back your candidacy.

The HBR Report focuses on women’s development.   But understanding, giving, and gaining sponsorship are critical leadership skills for both men and women.  Both sides of the sponsor relationship involve developing strong relationships and making the most of them.

There are many more leadership lessons in the Wizard of Oz.   In closing, two more.

Powerful enemies build a hero’s reputation.  The Wicked Witch wasn’t Dorothy’s sponsor:  she should have only been that smart.   Sending threatening messages via skywriting takes time and energy — especially when you’re using a broomstick!   Had the Witch instead learned Dorothy’s heart’s desire, she could have sent her irritating rival back to Kansas and won her support.  And maybe the shoes.  There’s rarely an upside to keeping someone else down.

(And BTW, Miranda in The Devil Wears Prada (film version)?  Definitely Andie’s sponsor.  But I digress.)

Finally, a word I’ve stopped using:  “empowerment.”   I’ve come to believe that there’s no such thing as empowerment.   It’s magical thinking to believe that we humans can grant, or receive, power.

It’s only possible to step into power we already possess.   And that’s no small thing.

(May 5 update:   I wrote an article, another take on sponsorship, for Wharton’s Leadership Digest, a publication of the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management.)  (May, 2017 update: thanks to the Internet Archive’s Wayback machine, I found the archived version of my early 2011 article…)

Photo by mollypop, used under Creative Commons license.