Sponsorship and The Room Where It Happens
When the Tony Award-winning musical Hamilton was on tour, and despite the ridiculous price-point for tickets, I went to see it. Even if musical theatre is not your thing, it’s hard not to have been exposed to some of the songs, and what was once the obscure story of the United States’ first Treasury Secretary. Who knew the geekiest job in the Cabinet could inspire such a cultural phenomenon?
One of the most well-known songs in the production is The Room Where It Happens, a declaration of desire to be in the inner circle, the place where decisions are made. The musical number relays the story of the “dinner table bargain” that became the Compromise of 1790, giving us our national debt, our federal banking system, and a national capitol in Washington, D.C. Aaron Burr was New York State Attorney General at the time, an ambitious man who had been excluded from the closed-door meeting:
No one really knows how the game is played
The art of the trade
How the sausage gets made
We just assume that it happens
But no one else is in
The room where it happens
Burr rightly notes that the American people had no voice in this decision. But his concern is really more self-centered: he wanted to be included and his solution to the problem was to run for political office so that he could be in the room next time. He ran for and won election to the U.S. Senate.
Is it fair and just that decisions that affect us are made without our input? Is it villainous to want to know what happens, to be part of the discussion?
Interpretations of the song and Burr’s character vary. But whether you think of him as a ruthless, power-mad villain, or as a sympathetic character whose voice was not only not heard, but not included, we have all been there: decisions are made by others on issues that affect us, and we have no voice in the matter.
This happens at work all the time. There’s a lot of talk about mentorship around women and their careers. It’s always helpful to have a guide, someone to provide feedback, to show you the ropes. But it’s important, perhaps more important, to have a sponsor. In her book, Own It, Sallie Krawcheck talks about sponsorship. A sponsor is an advocate, someone who speaks up for you in those closed door meetings.
If You’re on the Outside
When you’re working your way up, you’re not going to be in the room where “the sausage gets made.” You’re going to want a sponsor in there, someone who will bring up your name for that plum project, the promotion, the leadership role.
HOW DO YOU FIND A SPONSOR?
1. Don’t assume your boss or other advocate knows what you want – Be direct. Tell him or her that you want that project/promotion/leadership position.
2. Be prepared to back it up with why – Give your advocate ammunition. Particularly if you are breaking any precedent, you want all your best stuff discussed in that room.
3. Don’t forget to anticipate the push-back – Don’t dwell on the potential reasons why you’re not right for this next step, but provide a good counterpoint to any short-comings you may have in taking on a new responsibility.
4. Learn about the sausage-making – Ask questions about the process. Some of it may be confidential, but you can get an idea of what qualities and expertise are important to promote.
5. Promote diversity and inclusion yourself – Many women are continually challenged to value and promote their own talents. When a colleague sings your praises or compliments you – LET THEM. Say “thank you.” You’re allowing a woman to shine. In addition, think broadly about your networks and get to know colleagues senior to you and outside of your own industry and circles.
If You’re IN the Room
For those of you who are in the room already, survey your organization for good candidates for sponsorship, particularly new voices who could help keep your employer competitive and relevant. Look down the chain of command. Women, for example, are no longer tokens in organizations; you don’t have to remain a Queen Bee, and can help others coming up behind you without undermining your own position. You’re building a legacy as well as a career; what do you want that to look like? Look for talent downstream, and consider who you can sponsor. It should not be as difficult for the next wave of workers to advance if we are making real progress on promoting inclusion and ending discrimination.
HOW DO YOU BECOME A SPONSOR?
1. Start by reviewing your staff, but also consider those on other teams who show potential – Organizations are fluid, and looking outside your span of control may give a person poised to pivot a chance, bring new and needed skills to your team, and an opportunity for you to think outside your org chart box.
2. Enlist others – The more allies we bring into the process brings other voices into the discussion, which is the ultimate goal. While I’m focusing on women here, don’t let gender blind you to others who may share your goals. No one says a person can have only one sponsor in the room.
3. Consider co-sponsorship – Given who has the power in most organizations, it’s not just other women who need to promote diversity. More men need to be sponsors of women and other less represented groups, too. We need to shut down the “Pence Effect” – a policy to not meet privately with a female colleague – and find ways to help them do this effectively. Again, you can have more than one sponsor in the room.
4. Do your homework – You never reach a level at work when your job is completely secure. (You can ask Krawcheck about this.) As part of your job, you’re already reviewing what’s working to grow the organization, enhance its reputation, allow it to attract and retain the best people. Look for the people who can help you do this.
5. Reveal what you can about the sausage-making – There is a difference between private conversations and secrets. We have a secret ballot when we vote – but it’s not secret that we are voting, or who is on the ballot. Open and transparent processes level the playing field, but even if the process is private, the screening criteria for the position or project should not be a secret.
Catalyst, a leading research organization on women and the workplace, finds that “high-potential women are over-mentored and under-sponsored relative to their male peers.” By all means, have a mentor, be a mentor, but think too about sponsorship. More than ever, organizations are being evaluated based not only on performance but on their ability to attract and retain top talent. Having an advocate in the room where you are not, where decisions about your career are made, is key to advancement. Make sure you’re cultivating them, until you can be in The Room Where It Happens.