Executive Development October 21, 2019

My Journey to the C-Suite and the Boardroom: Sponsorship

By Karen Cone Former CEO, Corporate GM, & Board Director

Very early in my career, I learned men are usually assumed competent until they prove themselves incompetent, while the opposite applies for women. Further complicating this scenario is that confidence overshadows competence, except when a woman acts just as confident as a man. In this case, colleagues and leaders often react negatively, since it does not fit gender stereotypes. Despite these hurdles, I successfully reached the C-Suite and the boardroom and was honored to work with many very talented men and women along the way. However, my journey was slower and, at times, more rocky than many of my male counterparts of equal or even lesser competency. I learned many lessons on my journey, some from success and others from failure. Perhaps my stories will help inform others along their journey to the top. Here is one of them…

One of my earliest lessons occurred at my first job, when it became apparent that the sponsorship of influential people is essential to career advancement. We hear a lot about the importance of mentors who, often unselfishly, provide advice, critical guidance, and support. A sponsor, in contrast, will put their own name and reputation on the line to recommend you for a specific opportunity. For a sponsor to take such a risk, he or she must believe in you, your talent, and your potential. 

I had just graduated from college with a degree in Sino-Soviet Studies. Back in the 1970s, very few had a degree in computer sciences, but I had not even taken any courses in science, math, or technology. That said, good timing is often a key to success, especially when preparation meets opportunity. When I graduated, IBM had just decided to open its first office in what was then the Soviet Union. IBM needed to hire people who spoke Russian and were familiar with Soviet governmental systems, but did not have any family ties in the Soviet Union (for fear of the KGB using such ties to obtain confidential information from the employee). I fit IBM’s profile and was hired, put into their extensive training program, and—upon completion—joined the Russian operations called IBM Trade Development. I split my time between the headquarters in Paris and the branch office we opened in Moscow. 

For new hires in the sales divisions, there were two primary career paths: a marketing representative (who was the account team leader) or systems engineer (who provided technical support.) Considering my lack of any technical knowledge, I assumed I would be a marketing representative. To my surprise, I was immediately slotted to become a systems engineer. At that time I did not encounter at IBM any women marketing representatives, there were none in my branch office and none in my training class. Customers usually had great confidence in and trusted the systems engineers; however, it was the marketing representatives who most often progressed into IBM leadership roles. I realized that, as a woman, I was not on the leadership track from Day One.

I did not challenge the “system.” Maybe I should have, but it was obvious to me, even at 21 years old, that this would end my career before it had started. So, I worked hard, learned about computers, and was assigned to work a territory in Moscow with a senior marketing representative who was not familiar with the language or culture. I did learn a lot from him, and he, in turn, relied on me with customers and to navigate the Soviet ministries. We were a good team, but this did not change my ambition to become a marketing representative as I knew it was my best chance to progress into a leadership position. 

My first chance at sponsorship 

About a year into my overseas assignment, an opportunity arose: the IBM Vice President responsible for Eastern Europe was taking a business trip to Moscow and wanted someone to join him as an assistant to verify what was said by the Soviet translators and side conversations. I volunteered. The Management Team carefully put together the program and briefings for the VP’s visit to the Soviet Union. The fact that I was simply there to provide support did not preclude me from ensuring that I knew his program exceptionally well and researched the customers and government officials with whom the VP would meet (not easy considering the internet did not exist at this time). During the 4-day trip, I became increasingly more valuable to the VP. He was briefed and “hosted” by the marketing representative for each customer, while I was able to add the backstory and provide context beyond the sales relationship. It was especially necessary for this VP to have well-considered interactions. He was German and even though it was 31 years since the end of World War II, relations between Russians and Germans remained sensitive.

When we returned to headquarters in Paris, the VP called me into his office to ask about my sales territory and quota performance. I made sure the VP knew I aspired to be a marketing representative, but was currently a systems engineer, and then handed him the Trip Report that I had prepared at my initiative. As I was leaving his office, I heard him pick up the telephone and mention my name.

A week later, I was called into my manager’s office and informed that I was now a marketing representative. It was apparent that the VP had provided the essential sponsorship I needed for such a move. 

Lessons on sponsorship

Three years (and one baby) later, the Soviets went into Afghanistan, President Carter pulled U.S. businesses out of the Soviet Union, and I returned to New York.

My shift into the marketing representative role paid off. I progressed into multiple management roles in both the US and Asia. I learned the critical importance of sponsorship and that it was earned, not entitled. My one regret is that I did not continue to reach out and update my first sponsor, the VP. I did not yet have enough business savvy to appreciate the importance of follow-up and continuing to cultivate the sponsorship relationship. I did not make that mistake again.

The events in this story took place a few decades ago, but the takeaways are equally relevant today. At each stage of my career, regardless of the level and even as a Board Director, I have always recognized the importance of establishing relationships with both mentors and sponsors and have often been honored to serve as such myself. I also know that there must be mutual value. Your sponsor is most likely to step up on your behalf when some “proof of concept” has been shown and s/he is confident that you can meet the defined expectations. Sponsorship should not be transactional. From time to time, send your sponsor a very brief update (sound bite) to show you are delivering. Be on the lookout for ways to provide occasional value to your sponsor. This will keep you on their radar for future opportunities. 

For women, a need to bridge the gender divide

Sponsors are just as essential to men as they are to women. However, men (primarily white men) often have the benefit of what we know as the “boys club”—a network of power players who interact on a regular basis and help each other—and/or have more comfortable opportunities to build relationships in casual settings, such as after-work drinks or through sports. As women, we need to be proactive in developing relationships in natural and authentic ways. We need to build networks that bridge the gender divide (not just segregated into boys and girls clubs) which will enable us to discover the unpublished opening or positions that do not yet exist.

In a New York Times op-ed article titled “Mentors are Good. Sponsors are Better.”, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, President, and CEO of the think tank Center for Talent Innovation, warned that without a sponsor, women workers risk getting stuck in “that sticky middle slice of management where so many driven and talented women languish.” I couldn’t agree more! Here, I shared how a sponsor helped me break into the management track. In my next story, I will share with you what happened to me when I got stuck in that sticky middle slice of management.