Three Professional Storytelling Traps Keeping You From Sponsorship & PromotionFeatured

It’s a pesky truth that to lead, you have to actually convince others to follow. While the road to the C-suite is littered with “Transformational Leaders” on LinkedIn, there’s zero guarantee this self-branding leads to actual promotions. To scale your impact, statistics suggest you’ll need buy-in from a sponsor. A sponsor is an existing leader within your organization who will advocate for your advancement, which can mean getting a raise since those with sponsors earn 11.6 percent more than those who do not. According to Payscale.com’s 2019 salary survey, “For women, particularly women of color, having someone in a position of power who will go to the mat for you can be an effective way to combat systemic bias and break through the glass ceiling to positions of power and higher pay.” Finding ways to connect personally with a sponsor - over a love of cycling or the ‘hell of a season’ the Giants are having - may feel challenging or downright disingenuous. In companies where there’s no real mandate for systemic change, a woman’s quest for sponsorship often leads to frustration and burnout. However, in organizations with a will to change or with even a few good apples, sponsorship may be viable. In these cases, one tactic is to find the aspects of your professional story and vision that interests a potential sponsor. In my leadership storytelling consultancy, I’ve connected with scores of mid-career women who aspire to lead their orgs and create meaningful policy change. Just as bad movie tropes like the dowdy dude with a super hot wife or when the nerdy girl is revealed to be a fox the moment she takes off her glasses persist, I've observed a few traps emerging leaders fall into over and over again Whether prepping for a review, giving a good interview, or having a compelling answer when Michelle Obama asks “So, tell me about yourself,” here’s a few tips on how to navigate them. Trap 1: Let the Work Speak for Itself Anita knew she had what it took to make Director. Two years and several stagnant promotion cycles after earning her MBA while having two babies and performing at a Fortune 100 company, she earned a reputation for being a “pinch hitter” rather than the senior leader responsible for training and managing other high level leaders as she aspired to. Like many of us without a brand or story, she relied on her work to do the talking. However, without a clear professional trajectory, her actions painted her as an executor when she wanted to be on the executive track -- a very different story. Within a month, we identified a crisp value proposition based on past experience that moved her from generalist to expert at converting heritage systems to the digital realm. She translated this new narrative to her manager by proposing stretch projects that both reinforced her newly articulated expertise and required her to set a vision and execute it. Instead of haphazardly vaulting herself to the next available promotion, we identified the perfect strategic sponsor for her next role and began a dialogue pitching herself at the solution to the digital conversion his team needed solving. Trap 2: Low to No Brand Awareness During the promotions process at her Fortune 50 company, a higher level supervisor familiar but not intimate with Kamika’s work asked her to “define her brand.” She was thrown but stumbled through her prepared list of success metrics. She lost the promotion. Later, that senior leader suggested that to break through to the leadership track Kamika needed to distinguish herself with a unique, compelling and cohesive brand story. To set that up, we dug into her five year vision where she saw herself negotiating partnerships between startups with emerging technologies and heritage brands -- quite a departure from her marketing role. Now that she knew her brand story’s ending, Kamika could see next steps: first she kept the senior leader invested by keeping him abreast of her focus. By emphasizing her previous partnership experiences and reinforcing that narrative by proposing high value partnership projects for her current role, she showed him she was taking his advice and running with it, thus giving him the opportunity to be her champion. In this way, she is creating recent, relevant experiences and stories in her new chosen lane she can deploy internally or externally depending on where she decides to create the best future partnership role. Trap 3: Good Story, No Strategy Manisha was on fire after we discovered her professional mission: to deliver best in class electronics and content to millions. She also knew she wanted to retire by 45, so she had some hustling to do. Knowing this, she’d signaled to her manager exactly what kind of directorship she sought. She also knew her work needed visibility to higher levels of leadership STAT. So when her manager “asked” if she could assign roles for an interdepartmental review of the electronics business, she assumed she’d waste energy on organizational minutiae instead of elevating her leadership story to potential sponsors. Not so. Acknowledging her boss didn’t care how the meeting went down, as long as it got done, we were free to structure the reviews to her benefit. Manisha identified the brands with the greatest impact to the company’s overall business (aka, the ones senior leadership cared about most). What could have been yet another dead-end exercise in “office housework” turned into an opportunity to reinforce her mission and gain visibility by making Manisha the face of the electronics accounts senior leaders were deeply invested in. Trick 1: Strategic Stories that Sell In a TV writers’ room, it’s generally poor form to point out story holes or character problems without pitching a “fix.” In this spirit, I’ll leave you with one example of the Platonic Ideal when it comes to strategic storytelling: The only thing standing between Particia and her dream job was a phone call. After weeks of interviews, she now had to convince the CEO of the well-funded transportation startup that she was worth the hire. Previously, she would describe her job as a Senior UX designer on a high level and with jargon. This worked to build trust with her fellow design experts but would not fly with the CEO. How could she connect her value in a way that he could understand immediately, and in so doing, pave the road to having him as a sponsor? An hour before the crucial call, we had our best laid plan: gain intel as to his priorities for the business by asking direct questions. This way she could orient any subsequent story to those outcomes and when she was hired, make sure her 90-Day plan aligned with his priorities. But on the call, the fog of war set in when he opened with this bomb: “Explain what you do so my grandmother understands.” Instead of merely describing her value on a general high level, Patricia chose a strategic metaphor. Much like his company was looking to redefine the dreary commuter experience, she painted him a picture of at time she had reimagined a sterile, sad car dealership for a luxury car brand. By painting him (and his grandmother) a story about a transportation challenge, she engaged his emotions which, research shows, result in a better understanding of the key takeaways while enabling better recall of these points later. I don’t know if the CEO’s grandma had the final word, but Patricia got the job. Alex Cooley is a former TV writer-producer (The Colbert Report, Madam Secretary) turned founder of ACElectric (https://www.acelectric.co/), a leadership storytelling consultancy for mid-career women leaders in tech, media & finance seeking promotion & sponsorship. She uses her expertise to slip personal brand storytelling secrets, communication hacks, and fun gifs into your inbox every Tuesday. Join the club here: https://www.acelectric.co/how-to-make-an-ask-like-a-boss. To chat career strategy, apply for a limited 15 minute slot here: https://consult.acelectric.co/linkedin.
chelseamarti's profile thumbnail
@alexcooley Thanks for sharing this. It was very useful read for me. I've been feeling 'stuck' at the Director level in roles with increasing execution responsibility but not necessarily looked at as next-level leadership potential since 2012.
alexcooley's profile thumbnail
Hey @chelseamarti -- I feel your pain. The execution level is what's rewarded earlier in our career but making that jump into senior management requires a different story and set of skills. 8 years is a long time to wait. Where do you want to be in the next year?
emerlinj's profile thumbnail
This is so helpful to be reminded of the power of shaping narrative in our every day lives! Thank you for this.
alexcooley's profile thumbnail
Of course! It's crazy how everything is part of your narrative. As a Brand expert, you totally get this :) Thank you for taking the time to read the article. Glad you found it a good reminder!
arielleshnaidman's profile thumbnail
So good Alex! 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻
CeciliaCulverhouse's profile thumbnail
Alex, this is one of the best advice pieces that I've read in 20 years. Thank you.