It’s that time of the year again: International Women’s Day is on the horizon. Companies are searching for speakers, marketers are maneuvering women into photo-ops, and everyone is dusting off old chestnuts about women-focused “imposter syndrome” “role models” and “mentoring”. Having worked through all these stages myself, I understand why they remain career-advice standbys. But, given the dramatic changes of a global pandemic on its navigators (us), it may be time for women to rethink how we approach career-building.
After six years of coaching immigrant women to break into the tech industry, I’m tired of watching brilliant over-achievers chase never-ending mentorship opportunities to “build expertise”. Women are working harder than ever to be recognized as knowledgeable, reliable, and valuable in their chosen fields, only to be advised to “get coaching” for the majority of their careers. I don’t love that for us. Coaches and mentors can be awesome, but what would really catapult our careers are sponsors – AKA champions – who have more power at work than we do.
When you’re as under-represented as women are in many industries (especially tech), you need all the backing you can get. This is doubly true for racial and gender minorities, who too often contend with “things are fair and equitable because you’re here!” attitudes instead of consideration for stretch assignments and opportunities with which to build lasting careers. In the software development and delivery space, I’ve spent years and years proving my competence to hiring managers and then to line managers and colleagues. As the Latino actor Andy Garcia once said, his career used to feel as if he was “always getting off that damned banana boat.” Too many of us also feel this way professionally - as if, by virtue of working in spaces that are overwhelmingly male, we have to bring 10x the credentials and experience just to get a foot in the proverbial door.
This needs to stop. First, because it’s a fast-track to burnout. But also because it may be easier to enlist help than you might think. Turning “passive allies” into active sponsors isn’t always like climbing a mountain. Given that almost anyone with whom you interview — even on an informational basis — may have sponsor potential, it's a good idea to vet future managers for their sponsorship ability. That goes for both job interviews or when you’re discussing a lateral move. Why? Because in the best-case scenario, sponsoring is what a great manager will do.
A sponsor need only be someone who's in meetings at a higher level than you are, who is willing to “bring you into the room” when your performance merits mention. Organizationally, sponsors are either people whom you report to, or they might be at a higher level than your boss. So, how to set someone up to set you up for greater success?
Practically speaking, springing career-relevant questions on a line manager (or skip-level manager) might very well make them uncomfortable. And that can be a justifiably scary prospect for those of us who’ve learned the hard way that making men uncomfortable rarely leads to work advancement. But here’s something to remember: a manager who’s uncomfortable being asked how they would champion a woman professionally wouldn’t have been your ally in the first place.
You’ve got nothing to lose by asking if great performance means that your boss will have your back and talk you up. Here are some interview questions to practice that can help you to nudge potential sponsors along:
- When did you last promote someone on your team and how did it happen?
- What signs tell you that a direct report might need guidance? Who usually provides that?
- Have you ever had an employee who surprised you with their ability to learn quickly? Have you worked with women like this?
- What would your reports say that you sometimes need help with, as a manager?
- When do you typically provide feedback from your reports, and when do you receive it?
- Have you ever championed a report for a stretch assignment or for a key opportunity? Any women? What did you say or do?
Seeking out mentors, establishing relationships, and building professional, respectful knowledge exchanges takes lots of time and work. But interviews are an opportunity that some of us may be missing: instead of asking typical “interview questions” that tell you nothing about the person potentially overseeing your career, ask who is willing and/or familiar with sponsoring activities. Actively identify the kinds of help that you expect as a high-performer – and try to get a sense of whether or not senior leaders understand how to support you in tangible ways. Career development is a journey, but it doesn’t have to be a solo trek. That’s why, I’ve stopped coaching women to build more confidence and started asking them to scout for sponsors to raise visibility of their accomplishments, instead.