Careers Need Allies

Orgs coordinate activity. And if coordination is hard, we should expect orgs to only barely accomplish this task. That is, we should expect org decisions to be dominated by coalition politics. Orgs that face competitive pressures, like firms, would slowly get more efficient, and thus larger, as we slowly found and spread org innovations to better channel coalition politics efforts in productive directions.

If coalition politics dominates org decisions, then the obvious career strategy advice is to make good alliances. Pick allies valued by strong coalitions who are likely to stay loyal to you, and offer such allies your loyalty as well as efforts and abilities valuable to them. That is, look for pair-wise win-win gains between you and potential allies. You don’t have to like them, and they don’t have to like you.

We often hear other advice, like: seek associates you are comfortable with, or who have things in common with you, or who can give you good advice. Or that you should focus on showing your value to your org as a whole. But these seem to me to be the usual fig leaf excuses. That is, these are things one can admit doing openly without violating the standard forager norms against overt coalition politics.

What smart folks probably really mean when they suggest that you get a mentor, is that you get a powerful ally. And while allies in high places can be especially valuable to you, to make it a win-win relation you are going to have to offer them a lot of value in return. You will even have to figure out how you can help them, and help them first; they don’t have the time, and don’t trust you yet. And when you succeed in finding such a powerful ally, you will submit and they will dominate. That doesn’t sound nearly as nice to say, however.

But sometimes people do say it, out loud and everything:

In a new book, economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett uses data to show that mentorship, in its classic wise-elder-advises-younger-employee form, doesn’t produce statistically significant career gains. What does however, her research found, is something she has termed “sponsorship”—a type of strategic workplace partnering between those with potential and those with power. …

Women are only half as likely as men to have a sponsor—a senior champion at work who will basically take a bet on them, tap them on the shoulder, and really give them a shot at leadership. Women have always had mentors, friendly figures who give lots of advice. They’re great. They’re good for your self-esteem; they’re good for your personal development. But no one’s ever been able to show that they do anything to help you actually move up. …

We find that women in particular often choose the wrong people. … They seek out a senior person they’re very comfortable with. … For a sponsor, you should go after the person with power, because you need someone who has a voice at those decision-making tables. You need to respect that person, you need to believe that person is a fabulous leader and going places, but you don’t need to like them. You don’t need to want to emulate them. …

Senior leaders are looking for three things [in someone to sponsor]. They told me they’re looking for someone who performs exceedingly well—whether it’s writing amazing legal briefs or really hitting those numbers, that’s at the heart of it. Secondly, you’ve got to demonstrate loyalty, because there’s risk in the relationship. This person is going to take a bet on you. And then thirdly, you have to bring some special value, some currency, to the table that the leader doesn’t have. …

The cardinal rule here is to give before you get. … Figure out how you could be valuable and then sponsorship flows. … You can’t say, “How can I be valuable?”—unless in your mind you already know that a piece of work in your back pocket actually could fit into this person’s urgent agenda. …

One of the tactics to get to know a senior person in your organization, and in a more peer-on-peer way to impress them, is actually to get involved in some community or professional organization which is a little outside of work. …

When a protégé is delivering on the performance, the loyalty and the value-added front, they propel the career of the senior person. … One senior leader said to me, “I don’t do empathy. This is not what this is about. I make strategic investments in young people, and a whole lot has to be coming back.” (more)

Note that while bald statements of cynicism are usually censured in public discourse, this particular statement is accepted since it is framed as being in the service of a noble cause: helping women to break the glass ceiling in management.

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  • João Lourenço

    Since the intellectual and epistemological development of
    society is so tied with the developments and relationships of certain groups,
    the fact that the mentorship relation is based in power doesn’t sufficiently undermine
    its intellectual role. Since there’s no separate realm of ideas, I believe when
    an intellectual mentor says you should research something or go in a certain
    direction, this will also teach what you should be researching and what is
    valuable from an intellectual standpoint.

    It is certainly true that competitive altruism runs deep in academia. One good advice I’ve got is to always start an email offering something. An important Professor will likely receive dozens of marginally equally interesting emails, and deliberately or not, he will tend to pay more attention to those who are offering something to start with.

  • UncleElmer

    “Seeking out a sponsor with power…”

    What some would call “brown-nosing”.

    • Brent Dill

      I think it’s only brown-nosing when someone low-status does it.

  • Perhaps Robin will disclose whether he had a sponsor.

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  • K991

    Sponsorship, as described by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, looks the same as patronage, a form of relationship between superiors (persons with power) and selected subordinates (their protégés) as described by everyone else. It is well characterized and understood in sociology, and in art, political, and economic history. Apparently this universal phenomenon in political and economic relations was hitherto unknown to economists. Or perhaps it is another example of the freakonomics movement, by which I mean the tendency amongst economists to take a phenomenon already well understood and described in detail by other disciplines (often psychology and sociology) and give it a slightly different label, whilst presenting it as a major new economic insight.

    • I agree that give the situation you describe Hewlett it would have been better to have called it “patronage.”

    • An-Jen

      Perhaps, but could you cite something from the other literatures actually seeks to rigorously quantify its effect and distinguish it from mentoring? If not, then I think it Hewlett’s study does constitute a significant contribution …

    • Ongelooflikbeskou

      Below the ~75th ability (or some proxy for the interaction of parent’s income and IQ) percentile, ‘patronage’ takes the more extreme form of some degree of abjection.


    “Orgs that face competitive pressures, like firms, would slowly get more efficient, and thus larger, as we slowly found and spread org innovations to better channel coalition politics efforts in productive directions.”

    That’s not always true since humans have finite lifespans and human nature is static (new generations repeat the mistakes of previous generations), a simple example is the fact that coalition politics haven’t been eliminated. Businesses are still not able to reliably select for a person’s merit and they probably never will be.

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  • michael vassar

    This doesn’t seem cynical at all to me. Really, both this OB post and the quoted passage seem hopelessly idealistic. OTOH, I basically consider anything conceptualized in terms of economics, that is, in terms of the pursuit of values/interests by conscious or human agents, to be hopelessly idealistic. Practically all real optimization seems to me to consist of local hill-climbing, not agency.

  • John

    Couldn’t the ORG just buy their Ally, via M&A. Do we buy Mentors in the same way or they buy us. They pay us, but its a win-win.

  • stevesailer

    In my experience, proteges often physically resemble younger versions of their patrons.

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  • Brent Dill

    > The cardinal rule here is to give before you get. … Figure out how you could be valuable and then sponsorship flows.

    Here’s a problem I’ve found with that: Whenever I attempt to give before I get, the conclusion that the potential sponsor inevitably comes to is that they can continue extracting value from me without paying back in themselves. When I explain that I cannot sustain the level of value I’m providing without some value being provided in return, they generally don’t see that as their problem.

    How do you prevent this?

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