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As humans, we naturally seek protégés who remind us of ourselves. Creating equitable workplaces means being intentional about who we bring along with us.

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My first job after college was with a small company (at the time) called salesforce.com, where I was among the first to be hired through their university recruiting program. According to my performance reviews and feedback, I had done great work in my first year there, and I was soon placed on a team with one of our most senior engineers, Doug. Doug was spearheading a high profile project, and they were assembling a team to execute on his idea. Not only was I fortunate enough to be placed on this team with him, but I was also fortunate that we clicked. Doug took me under his wing immediately, giving me fun projects to work on, and often spending hours pairing with me on code while cracking jokes and giving me the scoop on the latest office politics. Our whole team had a bond I’ve since come to appreciate as a rare occurrence, but the bond I had with Doug was something else. He frequently praised my work both directly and to my boss, and his confidence in my work gave me the confidence to tackle harder and harder problems. I loved my job and my team, and I felt like I was killing it.

Secretly though, I was upset. I couldn’t understand why I was getting all of this great feedback from a senior engineer, yet when I looked around, the new grads who started after me were beginning to get promoted. The whole thing was extremely opaque – no one talked about promotion packets or processes. I certainly didn’t want to be so arrogant as to bring it up. I thought the reward would come organically (meritocracy, right???), so what was I doing wrong? This ate at me for months.

Finally, in a fit of frustration, I summoned the courage to ask Doug, ‘What does it take to get promoted around here?’ He was surprised I was so worked up. Paraphrasing, he said, ‘You could totally be promoted. Did you talk to the boss?’ It seems silly now, but at the time it was a revelation to me that I could broach this subject with my manager. After reassuring me that yes, I could indeed talk about promotions with my boss, he said something I’ll never forget: ‘I could talk to him about it. Do you want me to?

In the next cycle, I was promoted. And some time later, after I had received another promotion, Doug was asked to step away and launch another project. There was another very senior engineer on the team, Alan, who was the natural choice to replace Doug as Tech Lead. However, Alan didn’t particularly want the role and felt I’d benefit from it more, so together Alan and Doug conspired to nominate me. When I reflexively said no (damn imposter syndrome!), they both convinced me I was capable. I didn’t have the words for any of this at the time, but I’ve since come to recognize many of Doug’s (and Alan’s!) actions as those of a very effective sponsor.

Sponsorship, defined

Simply put, a sponsor is someone who uses their position of power to advocate for the growth and advancement of a protégé. Let’s look into this further.

In this Forbes article from 2018, Terry Barclay, President and CEO of Inforum, is quoted as saying a sponsor is ‘an influential leader who openly and privately advocates for you, recommends you for highly visible or stretch assignments, supports you in risk-taking, helps you build relationships with key influencers, takes a vested interest in your career path and helps confront and interrupt bias.’

And numerous studies show that this type of advocacy from a sponsor is exactly what catapults people into senior leadership roles and leads to higher wages. In a 2012 study called Vaulting the Color Bar: How Sponsorship Levers Multicultural Professionals into Leadership, the authors assert that sponsors ‘elevate a protégé’s visibility within the corridors of power, win them key assignments and promotions, and place their own reputations on the line for a protégé’s continued advancement.’ If you read my story above and thought it sounded like I experienced a pretty lucky, accelerated path into leadership, you’d be exactly right  – that’s the power of an intentional and influential sponsor.

We’ll talk more about what this actually looks like in practice, but first let’s talk about why this matters so much for Black and brown employees.

Over-mentored but under-sponsored

In part one of this series, I referred to the extreme dropoff people of color experience along the entry level to c-suite pipeline, as presented in LeanIn.org’s Women in the Workplace Study

Now let’s first dispel the notion that the numbers in this study look like they do because of a difference in ambition. In fact, Black, Asian, and Latinx employees all respond they are ‘willing to do whatever it takes to get to the top’ at rates that are higher than those of white employees. This data is from the Vaulting the Color Bar report I referenced earlier, which goes on to say that ‘people of color are more eager to be promoted to the next level and more likely to aspire to hold a top job in their profession than Caucasians.’

Let’s also dispel the notion that this is all about networking. In fact, people of color are networking their asses off. In a study called Unfinished Business: The Impact of Race on Understanding Mentoring Relationships, they found that people of color are actually building expansive heterogeneous networks. They strategically develop complementary networks of white folks who might provide access to power and opportunity, and people of color who provide emotional support. The problem is, these relationships often look like more of a mentoring relationship, which requires less commitment and advocacy. Moreover, the impact of a mentor depends entirely on their status within a company. Herminia Ibarra wrote in the Harvard Business Review that ‘having a mentor increased the likelihood of promotion two years later for men, but had no effect on promotion for women. One reason was that the women’s mentors were less senior than those of the men and, as a result, lacked the clout needed to advocate for them.’ If women lack access to more senior mentors, then you can only imagine what this means for people of color, who enjoy significantly less representation in senior leadership positions. This is why you might hear that people of color and women overall are ‘over-mentored but under-sponsored.’ The quality of the relationship matters significantly.

I strongly suggest purchasing and reading the entire Vaulting the Color Bar study for a more in depth look at the complications that arise when people of color build networks, as it’s impossible to cover adequately in this article. The effectiveness of these relationships is affected by the race of the employee, their mentor/sponsor/protégé’s race, and their organizational positioning relative to each other, among other factors. 

What’s clear from this study though is that sponsorship is one of the keys toward unlocking the advancement of ambitious and talented people of color. Despite building these vast networks, only 8% of people of color report having a sponsor, compared to 13% of white people. And across all races (white folks included!), employees with sponsors are on average 20% more likely to be satisfied with their rate of advancement.

Antiracist actions in leadership: sponsorship

Remember Ibram X. Kendi’s words that opened part one of this series: ‘One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist.’ We know these racial disparities exist in our leadership ranks (the data doesn’t lie), and now we’ve educated ourselves a bit on why that is. An antiracist leader sees this data, familiarizes themselves with the causes, and decides to act in ways that correct these inequities. An antiracist leader looks to sponsor protégés who might not otherwise naturally find an effective sponsor.

First, let’s establish some important things about the sponsor/protégé relationship:

  1. You do not need to be someone’s manager, or even a manager at all, to be a sponsor. If you have some type of authority or access that your protégé does not have, then you can be a sponsor. This could be as significant as a technical architect who has a tight relationship and regular 1:1s with the SVP of Engineering, or as simple as an engineer who is tasked with giving feedback to a hiring committee about their intern’s performance over the summer. Both sponsors have access to people and situations their protégés will not be able to access by design. Both carry influence in their respective rooms.
  2. Sponsorships are only effective when the relationship is authentic and the sponsor truly believes in the ability of their protégé. Janice Fraser, Partner at Seneca VC, gave a life-altering talk called Female Career Advancement Summed up in One Usable Diagram in which she described sponsorship as a quid pro quo relationship. A sponsor invests time, energy, and political capital into the relationship with their protégé, and in turn, the protégé delivers results. You do not want to risk wasting your time or harming your reputation by sponsoring someone you don’t believe in. Instead, you should be actively looking for folks whose work you know well (or can get to know well) and for whom you’ll be able to advocate when speaking with other authority figures. Remember, this isn’t an act of charity, this is a conscious action you’re taking to upset the inequitable status quo for a deserving team member.
  3. Our animal-brained tendency is to sponsor people who remind us of ourselves. As Fraser says in her talk, ‘It is not sinister, it is not deliberate. It is a natural manifestation of what it is to be human.’ This is why it’s so damn hard to change the makeup of the c-suite; white people (and white men in particular) must actively override this part of our brain when we think about who we advocate for, or else we reinforce this inequality. 

Recently Neha Batra, Director of Engineering at Github, gave an excellent talk at LeadDev Together called Sponsored by: you. To start off, she referred to a tweet in which she asked, ‘What is one thing a manager has done to skyrocket your growth?

To borrow Neha’s framing, the responses could be summed up in three categories: opportunity, autonomy, and recognition/credit. Let’s review some common actions that anyone can take in each of these three categories.

Opportunity

Sponsors create opportunity for their protégés. In my earlier example, Doug gave me fun yet challenging projects that helped me learn and build confidence at the same time. When Doug left the team, both he and Alan suggested that my boss name me as his successor (and refused to take no for an answer).

Creating opportunity can look like:

  • Suggesting (or convincing) someone to lead a high impact project with executive visibility.
  • Informing a protégé with management aspirations that a role they might not have heard about on another team has just opened up, and offering to put in a good word. (You’re a real one if this means you lose them from your own team.)
  • Submitting a resume and offering an honest, glowing reference.
  • Grooming a successor to replace you.
  • Carving out a project that will showcase a protégé’s skills and/or help them fill a skill gap.
  • Offering your spot as a speaker or panelist to someone who would benefit more from the opportunity.
  • Buying someone a book or financially sponsoring them for a workshop that will benefit them in their role.
  • Advocating for someone who is in an unfavorable situation. For example, many companies have a policy against allowing a person to move teams or managers if they are struggling to perform, until they are certain the performance issues have been addressed. However, if you know someone whose “performance issues” are actually the result of inexperienced management, poor team mentorship, and/or bad skill alignment, you can sponsor someone by advocating for their needs and suggesting an exception to this policy be made. (Exceptions are made all the time, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!)

Autonomy

Sponsors create growth by granting autonomy. It is often said that the vast majority of our professional growth comes from stretch assignments  – projects that are meant to challenge us and force us to learn while on the job – more so than the professional connections we make. This might sound contradictory, but it’s not. We invest in professional relationships with our sponsors, not just so they’ll help us advance (that’s your worst form of office politics), but so they’ll give us space to grow and develop in ways that earn us a promotion or new opportunity.

Stepping back and giving others the space to make decisions and mistakes is the sign of a trusting sponsor relationship. In my current role as Head of Engineering, I’ve been granted more autonomy over my department than I’ve ever felt before in prior roles. While it is occasionally terrifying to be held so accountable, it is also incredibly exhilarating and motivating to be in charge of decisions that affect my org. Having autonomy has forced me to be more thorough and consistent in my decision-making, and not having to seek permission to do something has made me less hesitant. It feels safe to try something, fail, and recover, which is exactly what leads to growth.

Creating autonomy as a sponsor can look like:

  • Delegating leadership of a project (or portion of a project) to a protégé.
  • Coaching rather than giving advice, so your protégé learns how to solve their own problems.
  • Making it safe to make mistakes. This could mean normalizing how you and your team talk about the mistakes you’ve made, adjusting the way your team reacts to mistakes, or even advocating for a protégé who made a mistake. In part one of The Antiracist Leader, I talked about how Black workers are penalized more harshly for mistakes. An act of sponsorship could quite literally be helping your senior management team see that they are overreacting to a protégé’s mistake.
  • Vocally and publicly supporting someone’s attempt to accomplish something in a different way.

Recognition/Credit

Finally, the easiest way to sponsor someone is by giving them recognition and credit. Doug was such a powerful sponsor for me because he praised me all the time, even when I wasn’t in the room. He was willing to talk to my boss and express his support for my promotion. While perhaps I may have been promoted without Doug’s endorsement, having his vocal support basically ensured it was a slam dunk, and potentially elevated how others viewed me.

Giving recognition can look like:

  • Positioning a protégé as the go-to person for a particular task or product and sending all questions their way.
  • Ensuring senior leaders (and peers!) know your protégé for their accomplishments.
  • Ensuring senior leaders actually know your protégé at all: 18% of Black employees and 15% of Asian employees don’t have a senior manager who knows them by name, compared to 12% of white employees (source: Vaulting the Color Bar). Make sure your management chain, your protégé’s management chain, and any other relevant leaders know who your protégé is, in addition to their strengths and aspirations.
  • Ensuring peers recognize your protégé for their leadership and authority. I’ve often heard Black managers and leads talk about being disrespected or disregarded by the folks they have organizational authority over. I’ve also managed a team with a tech lead who was Asian, female, introverted, and steamrolled in meetings by a new coworker. I had no tolerance for this. As a sponsor, you can make your protégé’s role clear to others and ensure feedback or consequences for those who don’t respect them. I think about this as slowly changing the picture that comes to someone’s mind when you say ‘leader’, ‘manager’, or ‘tech lead’.
  • Advocating for someone’s promotion or role change in explicit terms to a manager and as part of the feedback and promotion process.
  • Emailing someone’s manager to talk about something great they accomplished – especially if it’s work that isn’t usually visible.

On this last point, there is one huge, important caveat. You need to know your protégé well enough to understand what they actually want credit for. To understand why this might be, consider first that underrepresented people at your company are likely to take on work in the Diversity & Inclusion space (for example, they might decide to chair the Employee Resource Group for Black employees). While white men are praised for doing this same work (it’s seen as selfless), underrepresented workers are often penalized for this work (source: HBR.com). At a former company, one of my coworkers was struggling to achieve a promotion, and any work she did with ERGs was seen as distracting from her job as an engineer – even if that work was done after hours. While I certainly noticed and appreciated the work she did, praising her for this work to her manager would have had a negative effect on her. She preferred that all public praise be related to her code output. Underrepresented people can often find themselves needing to construct personas that are palatable to the organization; if you can’t tear that down entirely, you’d be kind to endorse your protégés for the things that will benefit them.

Reflection

Take a moment to reflect on what you just read. When you think about creating opportunity, granting autonomy, and giving recognition to someone, who comes to mind? What do they share in common with you? A gender or ethnic identity? Perhaps you went to the same school or grew up in the same region. Now challenge yourself to think of other folks around you who are unlikely to have much common ground with you and other people in leadership. Think about the Black and Latinx folks who work with you or adjacent to you. What access do you have that they lack? Do you know them well enough to sponsor them?

If you’re struggling to assemble a diverse group of potential protégés, interrogate why that is. If it’s because diversity is lacking in your company, what’s wrong with your recruiting process and how can you help? If it’s because you don’t work closely enough with a diverse group of people, can you change that? Who can you get to know better? Challenge yourself to diversify your close relationships at work. 

We’ve now spent a fair bit of time talking about the actions we can take as individuals. In part three of The Antiracist Leader, we’ll take a step back and look at some of the common workplace policies that often cause or reinforce inequity, and I'll suggest a potential framework senior leaders can use to address them.