Sponsorship is the act of creating an opportunity for another to progress in their career. When you sponsor someone, you put your reputation on the line by advocating for a specific individual, scenario, and outcome to combine and materialize. This can (and should!) feel like you're taking a risk.
A manager has a number of advantages going for them that makes this type of sponsorship a particularly effective superpower:
- They have relationships with other leaders in an organization and can influence broad-reaching decisions.
- They have streams of information that give them visibility into upcoming projects and organizational changes.
- They're exposed to the goals and concerns of adjacent teams.
All of this access creates enormous sponsorship potential! Before I unpack this, I want to drop a mention of Lara Hogan's "What does sponsorship look like?" post. I consider this to be the seminal article on the topic of sponsorship in engineering management. If you want to learn how to help others in their careers and you haven't read it yet, I think you'll find the 10 minutes well-spent.
Examples of sponsorship
Lara shares a wonderful list of sponsorship examples in her article. In the dozen or so months I've been an engineering manager, I've been able to sponsor my direct reports in a few different ways.
Filling project leadership roles
One of my team members was driving the planning and execution of an important cross-team project. He had great momentum and vision for the project. But with multiple teams, senior engineers, and product managers involved, I sensed a risk of having many competing cooks in the kitchen. I presented the relevant stakeholders with an explicit ask: "I'd like to formally recognize this engineer as the project lead and primary point of contact. Can we all agree to that?" With everyone's consent secured, the path was clear for him to move the project forward with the support he needed.
Filling stakeholder roles
Sometimes my team needs to be involved with a cross-team project in a supporting role. In situations like this, we need a team representative who can help the other folks on the project understand our team's goals and expertise, bring concerns back to the team, and escalate issues to me if necessary. Individuals use these opportunities to learn about our team's role in the bigger picture and to develop their skills at helping other teams leverage our team's expertise.
Filling speaker and writer roles
At Elastic we regularly write blog posts, create marketing materials, and give presentations to the community. If any of these are relevant to my team's domain, I'll tap whichever individual has expressed interest or expertise in that area and ask them if they'd like to contribute. These kinds of roles are great for visibility and bolster the individual's reputation as a subject matter expert.
Amplifying their voices
An engineer on my team once wrote an excellent case study on how she worked with a designer to prototype ideas and validate them with internal user-testing. I was impressed by the attention to detail in their methodology and I thought other teams would find inspiration in her email, so I forwarded it on to the entire engineering organization. Folks responded positively, enabling me to cite this email as part of my justification when I later promoted this engineer.
Increasing visibility to leadership
In another situation, an engineer on my team identified a critical bug that put an important project's deadline in jeopardy. I coached him to email the senior leaders of the affected teams, and I advised him on how to help these leaders understand the decisions that needed to be made and the details surrounding them. By emailing these leaders directly, this engineer's visibility grew and with it, his reputation as a problem-solver.
Offering interim team lead roles
Whenever I go on leave I ask a member of my team to lead the team in my absence. During my two paternity leaves, this period offered the selected individual the opportunity to lead for months at a time. She led team meetings, drove progress on important projects, and wrote company-wide update emails. This experience gave this engineer greater visibility within the organization. It also gave her an idea of what a technical leadership or even people management role would be like, should she choose to pursue one someday.
Try it out yourself
As an EM, you have unique access to information and relationships. It just takes a bit of packaging to transform this potential into sponsorship opportunities for your direct reports. Think about the growth path of each individual on your team. Which skills are they currently developing? What kinds of experiences have they expressed interest in?
As needs emerge on your team and within the broader organization, gaps will form where the right individual can make a big difference. Try to spot those gaps, match them with folks on your team, and figure out what you need to do to place those folks within the gaps where they can shine their brightest.