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February 27, 2012 Articles

Where Mentoring Ends and Sponsorship Begins

A mentor often plays two chief roles, acting as both a mirror for seeing yourself more clearly and a prism for seeing organizations and systems more clearly.

By Susan Letterman White, JD, MS

Mentoring is an important element in advancing a lawyer’s career. A mentor often plays two chief roles, acting as both a mirror for seeing yourself more clearly and a prism for seeing organizations and systems more clearly.

Mentors can tell you about the culture of an organization or system—i.e., the hidden rules of the game for advancing your agenda or objectives. Mentors can reveal the implicit biases that make it harder for women and other lawyers of less social identity privilege to advance their careers. They can tell you who in your organization or system has the real decision-making power, and what you will need to do before those people will exert their decision-making power on your behalf. Mentors also can offer insight and advice about how to leverage your strengths for maximum benefit. Specifically, mentors can tell you what you need to do more or less of to build your own power bases. Power bases, which are a person’s individual sources of energy available to use in any strategy to attain goals, can arise from:

•controlling resources, the most important of which in a law firm is a significant book of business;

•increasing your network power base of relationships;

•improving your standing as an expert in your field;

•formal authority; and

•improving your referent power or likeability.

In essence, mentors can share practice tips that will help you improve your competence in the hard and soft skills that make lawyers successful as rainmakers, experts within the profession, and as complementary members of organizations.

A successful lawyer often has multiple mentors through her life and each will be helpful in a different way. Look for mentors in your social identity group as well as outside of it. Each brings a different perspective, set of knowledge, and insights. However, not all mentors are sponsors––people who have the power to affect the decision making that matters to your career success and who will exercise it on your behalf by serving as your champions.

Sponsors influence the decisions about disseminating career-making opportunities. They connect others with those opportunities and advocate for the success of those special others whom they sponsor. In law firms, career-making opportunities include working on significant projects for key clients and developing relationships with the people who decide compensation, promotions, and work assignments. Sponsors outside of your law firm are the people who connect you with business opportunities. They are members of the empowered group controlling the decision-making power, or they are trusted advisors to those who control the decision-making power in the organizations that matter to you (i.e., your employer or your client organizations).

Despite what many of us were taught, professional success depends as much upon sponsor relationships as competence. In fact, whether and to what degree any of us is perceived as competent, depends on the perceiver. Referent power, the power of being likeable and trusted by others, affects every decision others make about us. If someone perceives us as likeable, they are more likely to notice us in a positive way, listen to us, and make decisions in our favor. We have a natural tendency to like people we perceive as being like us or fitting a stereotype of likeable and trustworthy in a particular situation. Who will the empowered decision makers in your organization perceive as naturally likeable lawyers?

If the decision makers are significantly different from the person whose competence they are judging, the natural biases of the decision makers kick in. One role of a sponsor is to advocate in the face of implicit bias. The most effective sponsors are going to be liked by those whose decisions they are trying to influence. Sponsor relationships tend to form within social identity groups based on race, gender, ethnicity, etc., bestowing benefits, called “unearned privileges,” on members of the highly empowered social identity groups and inadvertently denying the same privileges to those in the less empowered groups. (Think––Good Ol’ Boys Club.) Ally relationships, on the other hand, tend to form between sponsors and individuals who are members of less empowered social identity groups. If the people with the decision-making power that matters to your career goals are within a different social identity group from you, then you need allies. Women need men, for example, because they hold most of the formal power in many organizations.

Each of us is responsible for choosing our goals. Attaining those goals, however, depends on the decisions that others make about us. Although each of us has unique and personal sources of power; others, like law firm executive committees, make decisions about whether we are perceived as influential, likeable, confident, trustworthy, competent, and deserving of career-advancing opportunities. Read any of the myriad survey results about the statistics of women and lawyers of less social identity privilege at the highest organization levels and the inevitable conclusion is that the absence of diversity on the organization’s formally empowered committees affects the decisions of those groups. The decisions are driven by the empowered group’s shared and hidden mindsets, values, worldviews, and personal beliefs. Members of less empowered, less privileged, social identity groups are less likely to participate fully in important decision making and minimize the effects of the more empowered group’s implicit biases. Lawyers who are members of less empowered social identity groups are repeatedly being judged as less worthy of the career-making opportunities necessary for elevation to positions of formal power by the empowered groups. Implicitly, they are being judged less worthy of formal authority.

Mentors, sponsors, and allies help expand one’s power through relationships. If you need to find out the hidden rules for success in your organization or industry, develop a mentoring relationship. If you need someone to advocate for your success when you are not in the room, develop sponsor and ally relationships. If you need to develop your skills for effectively designing and implementing a career success strategy, hire a coach. Every successful lawyer has been helped by a mentor and sponsor, if not multiple mentors and sponsors. Someone told them the rules of the game and someone advocated on their behalf.

It is important to give some thought to what type of relationship would be most helpful to you in light of the challenges you are currently facing. If you are mystified by why some people in your organization are successful and others are not, you may be unaware of the culture and the hidden rules of the success game in your organization. You need a mentor. If you know the hidden rules of the game and the actions you need to take to play by those rules, and you have concluded that one of those rules requires advocacy on your behalf, you need a sponsor or ally.

If your goal is to advance from a junior position to a senior position within your employer organization, identify who in your organization has the decision-making power and then decide who could serve as a sponsor or ally to effectively influence the decision making. In contrast, if your goal is to bring a client matter into your law firm, identify who in the target organization has the decision-making power to distribute the work. The first action step is always to clearly identify and frame your goal in a way that makes it possible to take relationship-building action steps to improve the odds that the decisions in support of your attaining that goal will result in favorable outcomes for you.

Design, implement, review, adjust, and re-implement your action plan to develop sponsor, ally, or mentor relationships. Success depends on using an iterative process and being resilient and tenacious when success is not immediate. After identifying a goal, identify appropriate sponsors and allies by asking these questions: Which individuals or groups have decision-making authority for the decisions that matter to your success? Who are the individuals who may influence their decision making?

After identifying a person as a potential sponsor or ally, identify the steps to build a mutually beneficial relationship with that person. How will you get to know this person? What are her interests? What are her needs, wants, and expectations? Why should this person want to help you? Rely on your listening and communication skills to build this relationship. If you need to hone these skills, do so by working with a coach or attending a strategic communication workshop. If your action plan is not successful and you have not developed a relationship with a sponsor or ally, analyze the outcome with the help of a coach and identify opportunities to adjust your plan or build your supporting skills set. If your plan has resulted in a sponsor or ally, evaluate the relationship’s effectiveness periodically to ensure your needs are being met and the relationship is moving you closer to your goals. Don’t stop there! Consider whether the relationship is mutually beneficial. Nobody likes a one-sided relationship.

Sponsors, mentors, and coaches fill different and equally valuable roles in one’s professional and personal life. It is not uncommon for successful people to have multiple mentors, sponsors, and coaches throughout life—and to serve in those capacities for others. Who would like to be your mentor, sponsor, or coach? Now, make it so.

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, mentoring, sponsorship, bias, social identity groups