What is career sponsorship and why does it matter?
How can we best use our power and influence to enhance and accelerate the careers of others? Sponsorship provides a framework for collaborative career development that, when done well, supports concrete outcomes and direct advancement, and improves workplace culture.
This article draws on the Champions of Change Sponsorship Toolkit, which in turn draws on a number of guides developed for other disciplines – particularly Sponsorship: Creating Career Opportunities for Women in Higher Education, by Jennifer de Vries and Jennifer Binns (Universities Australia Executive Women, 2018). This is part of the Stepping Up editorial program, which aims to share knowledge and experiences from the Champions of Change Architecture Group with the architecture and built environment practices more broadly.
In the context of career development, ‘sponsorship’ refers to the processes through which an individual uses their connections, influence and power to support others. This involves advocating for people in the forums and spaces that they may not have access to, and with those who may be unfamiliar with their skills and talents. It can be as simple as an off-hand recommendation, as obvious as backing someone for a promotion, or as generous as making space for another to be seen by those with influence, such as clients and stakeholders.
Sponsorship can make an enormous difference to people’s career development, range of project experience, personal networks and confidence, and can help sustain careers over time, but in architecture these relationships largely occur in ad hoc ways. Too often, sponsorship opportunities are limited to a select few and influenced by unconscious bias. Developing and improving fair, equitable sponsorship programs, processes and habits delivers opportunities to a wider pool of people and helps to address inequity within practice and in the wider profession.
This article covers:
- What is career sponsorship?
- How is sponsorship different to mentoring?
- The case for sponsorship
- Tackling unconscious bias
- Cultivating opportunity – how to be a good sponsor
WHAT IS CAREER SPONSORSHIP?
Sponsorship is the active and considered use of personal influence, professional standing, connections and networks to enhance career opportunities and help clear pathways for others – in particular, more junior colleagues. This is important because building a career is a cumulative process, and both advantage and disadvantage accumulate over time. Each opportunity builds on previous ones, and helps create future potential. Some opportunities can be career-making; others provide smaller gateways or building blocks. Most bring the potential to grow, to build experience, capacity and confidence. In contrast, opportunities not offered and doors not opened can stymie promising careers, leading to stagnation, decreasing confidence, disenchantment and further lost opportunities.
The career spiral diagram by Jennifer de Vries, an expert on sponsorship, captures the impacts of cumulative advantage and disadvantage and the potential of sponsorship in developing careers.
Understanding the impact of sponsorship on careers also helps people to recognise and challenge mythologies about careers being solely driven by individual talent and merit. As researchers Jennifer de Vries and Jennifer Binns explain, “By making the existence and impact of sponsorship visible, the reality that some people have benefited from the sponsorship of more powerful colleagues, while others have missed out on these career opportunities, can be acknowledged. Making sponsorship visible is a prerequisite to addressing inequitable career opportunity based on gender and other factors.”
They also point out that sponsorship should not focus solely on the most talented ‘high potential’ people. A strong sponsorship culture should enable all staff to develop a career that is aligned to their interests and skills and the need and ambitions of the organisation.
Sponsorship is a two-way relationship that brings benefit to both parties – the sponsor and the sponsee. It can range from the highly informal to carefully structured formal programs. Trust and honesty are essential to effective sponsorship in any form, as is good communication and shared commitment. Both sponsor and sponsee need to trust the relationship and each other, and they must both value and be able to provide honest and candid feedback. This requires open communication and a shared investment in the process.
Sponsorship helps create opportunity for individuals, but it is also more than this. When a culture of fair and positive sponsorship is embedded within an organisation, it supports the sharing of knowledge and resources and helps foster a collaborative, team-based approach to success, which is aligned with the long-term interests of the practice.
Sponsorship is an everyday occurrence within architecture, but current processes are often ad hoc, incidental or opaque. It generally occurs organically in informal and often unacknowledged ways. A lack of transparency in the operation of systems of sponsorship can means that some groups and / or individuals are offered many opportunities, while the skills, talent and promise of others are overlooked or unseen. This means it is difficult to identify gaps in support for individuals and teams. Informal systems can also allow bias to flourish, leaving women and underrepresented or marginalised groups vulnerable to exclusion.
A more reflective and intentional use of sponsorship can better support careers for a broad range of people, ensuring that diverse skills, experiences and backgrounds are valued and recognised. This requires collective commitment within a practice that is framed in terms of clear expectations and accountability, and is well understood and demonstrated by the practice leadership.
HOW IS SPONSORSHIP DIFFERENT TO MENTORING?
Sponsorship and mentoring are different but complementary systems. Where mentoring and coaching build awareness and capability in an individual, sponsorship helps propel an individual forward.
Sponsorship is about actively providing opportunity. Sponsors are invested in the success of sponsees, personally increasing their visibility and helping them to build networks. They protect and advocate for sponsees’ recognition and promotion. The sponsor acts on behalf of the sponsee and directs the relationship, with the aim of helping the individual to advance in their career.
Mentors, on the other hand, guide and support an individual’s development, sharing expertise and knowledge. The mentee is the driving force in the mentorship, setting the agenda and being responsible for achievement of the objectives. The mentorship aims to enhance an individual’s abilities and effectiveness on the job.
Sponsors draw on positions of power, networks, resources and social capital, whereas mentors may or may not be in a position of power. There is limited reputational risk for mentors, whereas the success or failure of a sponsorship may reflect on the sponsor, so there is considerable reputational risk involved.
THE CASE FOR SPONSORSHIP
Effective sponsorship brings a range of benefits. Drawing on research by Catalyst Inc, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency summarises these as follows:
- Accelerates the careers of individuals.
- Helps people meet the particular challenges of senior roles and alleviates the perceived risks associated with moving into new areas with little experience.
- Addresses the challenge of under-representation at senior levels by targeting the career advancement of women and underrepresented groups in general and advocating for the progression of high-performing people in particular.
- Guides an individual towards opportunities that can maximise movement towards career goals, especially those opportunities or career goals that may not be so obvious.
- Develops the leadership skills and reputation of senior leaders who act as sponsors. They can gain feedback, as well as learn more about the way the organisation operates at all levels.
- Increases an individual’s visibility within an organisation.
Investing time in others also brings benefits for sponsors, beyond the altruistic desire to help others. De Vries and Binns identify the following benefits for sponsors, which are readily transferable to architecture:
- Delegating higher level tasks creates opportunities for a junior person and, at the same time, lightens the leader’s own workload.
- The junior person brings skills that are valuable to the project.
- The leaders’ credibility and reputation are enhanced by the success of people they have sponsored.
- Developing others enhances the leader’s own skills.
TACKLING UNCONSCIOUS BIAS
A core challenge with career sponsorship is preventing bias. Unless carefully managed, sponsorship can unwittingly reinforce bias, and thereby skew support to those who already have a measure of privilege. It is important to understand unconscious bias and be aware of the nature and types of bias to help counter this.
We all bring unconscious biases to everyday encounters and activities. An outcome of social and cultural factors, unconscious bias means that judgments, decisions and actions are based on subjective criteria (beliefs, assumptions, feelings, stereotypes), rather than objective measures. It is impossible to eradicate this bias, but it can be mitigated through awareness, intention and considered effort.
De Vries and Binns suggest that the types of bias that are most often at stake in sponsorship and career development are affinity bias, stereotypes and norms and self selection bias. Affinity bias is when an individual focuses their support on people who look and behave like them and who may have similar skills, interests, aims and ambitions. Stereotypes and norms refer to gendered and cultural assumptions about competencies, attributes, ambitions and behaviours. This results in some habits and approaches being over-valued at the expense of other approaches. Self-selection bias refers to the beliefs and assumptions that prevent many women and people from underrepresented groups from putting themselves forward for career opportunities or advancement.
The first step is to recognise types of unconscious bias; the second step is to consciously examine everyday actions (both individual and organisational) to prevent bias creeping in.
CULTIVATING OPPORTUNITY – HOW TO BE A GOOD SPONSOR
There are many ways in which individuals can cultivate opportunity for others, from small everyday actions to substantial recommendations. A sponsorship system works best when a range of activities interact and reinforce each other.
Activate your networks and connections
- Make meaningful introductions to key people – mention particular talents and help build relationship currency.
- Facilitate access to and inclusion in a range of wider networks that may provide professional or career growth.
Include people in workplace processes they may not normally have access to
- Support to participate in document and design reviews.
- Make space within presentations to clients and consultants.
- Provide strategic advice on career pathways.
Advocate within the workplace
- Advocate in the context of promotions, salary increases and bonuses.
- Support the fair distribution of the career defining projects that build performance currency.
- Make space for people to develop their expertise or explore new directions within existing roles.
- Design roles in relation to a particular person’s strengths, when possible and appropriate.
- Provide insight into the mechanics of the business, and what the expectations are in senior roles.
- Provide strategic advice on career pathways.
Share opportunities for professional profile and growth
- Recommend others for roles offered to you – particularly those that help provide public profile or opportunities to develop skills – for example, as a member of a committee or design review panel, roles in professional bodies and public speaking.
- Encourage people to take up these kinds of roles and provide space, time and support to do so.
- Provide platforms for a sponsee’s talent to be seen by others.
Provide recognition and endorsement
- Give credit for work done, and talk about it in right environments.
- Name the team in project credits.
- Recognise and acknowledge expertise and experience publicly.
- Provide letters of recommendation/references for fellowships, prizes, scholarships.
- Nominate for professional awards, prizes and recognition.
For more information, see How to Support Career Sponsorship and the Light at the End of the Tunnel session on Career Progression and Sponsorship with Natalie Galea and Sophie Olsen.
This article was compiled by Justine Clark and Susie Ashworth as part of a set that draws on the Sponsorship Toolkit, created by the Champions of Change Architecture Group. Valuable assistance was given by Monica Edwards of the Champions of Change Architecture Group Advocacy and Comms Focus Group.
The Champions of Change Architecture Group Sponsorship Toolkit was developed by Karen Sangster (Le Provost) with Monica Edwards and Alex Small. It was closely informed by Sponsorship: Creating Career Opportunities for Women in Higher Education by Jennifer de Vries and Jennifer Binns (Universities Australia Executive Women, 2018).