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How can you push your sponsees out of their comfort zone, but not into the danger zone?

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I recently received the following message after someone attended one of my workshops on mentoring, coaching, and sponsoring:

I know how important sponsorship is, and I want to be better at it. But I find myself hesitating to sponsor someone, because I’m worried that doing so will take away that person’s autonomy. If someone said to me, 'I signed you up for a conference talk!' I’d be upset because that’s a big commitment to just drop on my plate!

But I also know that people sometimes need a push to take a chance and level up. So how do I do that in a way that’s safe for them? How do I know that I’m pushing them out of their comfort zone, but not into the danger zone?

This person is totally right: As a sponsor, you want to be giving this person a gift, not taking away their autonomy or putting them into situations they genuinely do not want. But how do we find the right kind of big, potentially scary, ripe-for-growth opportunity for this person we’re sponsoring?

(See my earlier post for LeadDev if you need a reminder about how to be a sponsor in the first place.)

Ask coaching questions

Many people don’t have a clear picture of the skills they want to build, how they want to grow, or the next step they’re envisioning for their career.

When I work with coaching clients to identify career goals, they often preemptively tell me that they don't have a five-year plan, though they ‘know they should.’ I reassure them that virtually no one I've worked with has a clear picture of what they want for their future. That's what I – and you – are here to help with!

Use a coaching approach to give this person some space to introspect about these topics. Develop a list of three to five questions you could ask your sponsees to make sure that you're dreaming up opportunities that are aligned with how they want to grow. For example:

  • What's one experience you want to gain in the next six months? (Examples for inspiration: Facilitating our retro, writing a blog post, or open sourcing a project.)
  • Dream big: What's one thing (skill, responsibility, etc.) you see another leader here doing that you'd like to experiment with/try out?
  • Dream bigger: What’s one leadership skill or responsibility that seems a little scary – or at least way out of your comfort zone – and would feel like a huge stretch for you?
  • If you could shadow me in any meeting, which would you want to be a fly on the wall for, in order to learn something new?

On that last question: Shadowing leaders in meetings has opened my eyes in surprising, enormous ways about how things work at a company. This question is less about trying to get insider info and more about seeing how the proverbial sausage is made.

You can send these questions in advance so they have time to think about them. Focus this meeting entirely on hearing their ideas and asking them questions, rather than coming up with a game plan; you can make the plan next time after you each have had some time to think!

Write down notes as you chat. Before you begin wrapping up, reflect back on what you’ve heard them say in your own words to make sure you have it right.

Design your alliance

Once you’ve each had time to think about what kinds of opportunities would match the ways your sponsee would like to grow, regroup and talk about options.

You should each bring up to three ideas for sponsorship opportunities that match the skills or experiences you chatted through in your last meeting. You might be surprised by the ideas your sponsee brings; a handful of the people I’ve sponsored had crystal clear requests for opportunities that I hadn’t ever had on my radar!

Help them choose one that you think is feasible for them to achieve in the next six months, but is still outside their comfort zone. You’re looking for a true stretch goal here!

Since this sponsorship opportunity will be a little scary (it’s a big stretch for your sponsee) remind them that you’re here to help them succeed. Talk through what kinds of support might be helpful to them as they embark on this new opportunity. Here’s some advice I shared in a previous article:

Ask your sponsee what they need to succeed with any new stretch project or role. Maybe they need feedback, a gut check, or some training. Maybe they need an 'in' to get on an agenda, be hired at a company, or receive mentorship.

Develop your action plan together. Each person will need a different kind of support; write down notes on what you are committing to do to help them, and identify good check-in points to regroup and, if necessary, adapt your approach going forward.

Develop a cadence

Whether or not you’re in a reporting relationship with your sponsee, decide how often you and your sponsee would like to chat about what kinds of growth or leadership opportunities they’re on the lookout for next. Put it on the calendar!

You might already get regular updates from them on how their work is progressing; if not (for example, if you’re not their manager) check in roughly every quarter about what they’ve been working on and what impact they’ve had with that work, too.

Though many folks haven’t yet thought about the kinds of opportunities they’re looking for, or what they want the next step in their career to look like, you can help them get that clarity today. Doing so will help give them autonomy and excitement around what the next big opportunity looks like. I’m so excited that you’re in their corner!