As a small company working with large technology firms, we've learned some difficult lessons about how to navigate the corporate world. As the white, male founder of a firm, but with 'hidden' diversity (all of our current employees qualify as at least one protected class, such as women, members of the LGBT community and/or disabled) I have seen a lot of conversations where people assumed I was one of the old boys' club, and had at least as many where I was definitely not in the 'club.' What I've learned is that mentorship is the second prize: sponsorship is what really matters. I first heard the term 'sponsorship' at the BlogHer Business, Entertainment and Technology conference a few years ago. In contrast to the (useful) mentorship and coaching models, which are mostly about advice in a private setting, sponsorship is the concept of lending or giving tangible and intangible resources to others to help them get a leg up—like reputation, connections, leads, money or access.
Sponsorship takes many forms
Sponsorship can take many forms. It can be offering to host a meeting between a woman working her way up the ladder and the high-ranking client or executive she's trying to develop a working relationship with. It can be offering tickets to conferences you're speaking and pointing her out from on stage as another expert to talk with at the break—or better yet, inviting her on-stage with you (or suggesting her instead of you). It can be co-authoring content to lend your personal brand. It can be including her on calls with top contacts even if you might not otherwise have had to, and hilighting her contributions and skills. It can be stepping back in a meeting and inviting her to lead. It can be bringing up issues of diversity and privilege so that she doesn't have to. It can be assisting in contract or proposal-writing that an 'insider' might better know how to navigate. In any form, sponsorship is about lending the financial, human and social resources you have to others and, like traditional sponsorship, putting something on the line for the person you're sponsoring.
I have had several sponsors over the years, including one whom I can attribute a substantial portion of our annual revenue to through the referrals he has given us. I find it difficult to ask for help, and prone to trying to have my questions or requests or collaborative work perfectly dialed-in to avoid any question of my earnestness or capability. It's a common pitfall for many people who didn't exit a top business school with a nearly-guaranteed, privilege-enabled path to success (well, probably for many of them, too).
Difficult moments in sponsorship
The hardest thing about sponsorship is finding ways to navigate it which don't reinforce a 'power-over' and 'power-under' dynamic. It means that the sponsor should try to be conscious of what they could do proactively so that the woman receiving that sponsorship doesn't always have to ask for help. It means asking, 'what would be most helpful for you right now?' rather than assuming. And it means being real and vulnerable, Brené-Brown-style, in exploring your own privilege. It's in some ways hardest if you also are a recipient of sponsorship, or struggling with your own issues of privilege inequality in business, because you might not feel stable enough or privileged enough to stick your neck out, and that's an honest conversation that needs to be had.
Committing to sponsorship
At our firm, we actually include sponsorship in the larger model of exchange we have with our team members and include it formally in their co-created professional development plans. This formal structuring can be as simple as adding "writing an article together on Internet of Things and the Connected Home" or more complex, like including conference attendance and warm introductions as part of the resources someone gets for working with us.
It's vulnerable to sponsor someone, moreso than just mentoring them, and it's not something to be taken lightly. However, in our ten years in business, the benefits of sponsorship on both sides can be enormous, and it's very much a needed leap of faith if we are going to bring truly diverse thought and leadership to bear on the world's pressing problems—technological or otherwise.