Humans are social creatures – no question about it. We usually need other people to feel happy, safe, and connected. However, on top of playing an important role in satisfying our basic needs, relationships are also critical for our career growth.
These relationships can take different forms – join me, as I explore some of them with Sayed Hashish, Katharina Vaeth, and Ralf Schmidt
There still seems to be some confusion around what sponsorship means, and how it’s different from other forms of workplace relationships…
Sayed: Sponsors are often confused with coaches, mentors, or advocates. A coach helps you understand yourself, your motivations, and strengths better, and come to your own answers. They don’t necessarily have to know your industry or business – they just need to ask the right questions and guide you to success. Mentors, on the other hand, help you by sharing their experiences or guiding you to consider specific scenarios or alternatives. Advocates are people that advocate for you in different situations. This is very important, because it helps your brand, success, and network, and here is the best thing: anyone can be your advocate. As a matter of fact, I think some of my most effective advocates were the people that worked for me. It’s important to create as many advocates as you can and you do this just by being yourself, caring, and ensuring that you are invested in the relationships across the workplace.
And finally: a sponsor…
Sayed Hashish: A sponsor is someone who leverages their position, influence, and social capital to advocate for opportunities and carry advancement for those they sponsor. Usually, someone more senior than you speaks on your behalf, brings you into conversations that they think will be good for your growth, gives you guidance when you need it, and opens doors for you. It’s a very personal, trust-based relationship, and it’s reciprocal; you are both equally invested in it. I myself was fortunate enough to have great sponsors throughout my career. Now, I’m very passionate about paying it forward.
Ralf, Katharina – you’ve built a successful sponsorship relationship. What has that journey been like for you?
Katharina Vaeth: I joined Cisco over three years ago, through the CX Academy Graduate Program in Krakow. I then joined Ralf’s team as a Junior Project Specialist, and in early 2021 he approached me about sponsorship. At first, I was a bit nervous. I was still very new to the company – and Ralf is a director! On top of that, I wasn’t at all familiar with the concept of sponsorship. Lucky for me, Ralf navigated this situation very well, he was driving our conversations and helped me feel more and more comfortable as our relationship was progressing. Looking back at almost 30 sessions we had together, this sponsorship benefited me in several different ways. Firstly, Ralf is always challenging me to make time for my personal development and helps me define strategies for some of the areas I want to improve in. We spend a lot of time on the people side of my work, including understanding myself and the people around me better, which is incredibly important for my work with project teams. It has also helped me get more confident talking to more senior people – at Cisco and on the customer side. Secondly, he gives me ideas on how to deal with challenges and tough topics and helps me work through them with a lot of patience, support, and advice.
Thanks to Ralf I started to realize the value I can bring to Cisco through my work, and combined with other feedback loops, it has helped me build my confidence and progress in my career. All this made me think about how I can help other people, who are new to the company, in the position I was in a few years ago, so I am now mentoring a new Project Manager who joined our team and who is new to Cisco, helping him navigate through our role-specific tools and processes, and Cisco life in general.
Ralf Schmidt: Before Katharina joined my team, the CX leadership discussed the Multiplier Effect as an opportunity to strengthen diversity within our teams. Sayed nicely explained the various ways you can help people grow – at the beginning of such a process you cannot really predict how this evolves over time and whether you can really be an effective sponsor for someone. As Katharina mentioned, my job initially was to break the ice; to ensure she felt comfortable and safe enough to share. Sharing my own vulnerabilities played a big role in that process. I think at first, I believed in Katharina more than she believed in herself – and our journey was very much about building her confidence. She has already been promoted twice and while I can’t take the credit for that – after all, it says more about her talent and performance than anything else, I like to think that working with her has helped her to utilize her potential faster. Then, it is also fair to concede that this has never been a one-way street. Being confronted with perspectives so different from my own, helps me reflect on the way I act and communicate, so she also helps me to become a better leader.
Sayed: There are statistics to support all the benefits Katharina and Ralf mentioned. Did you know that people with sponsors are 23% more likely to move up in their careers than those without sponsors? At the same time, leaders who sponsor others are 53% more likely to advance their careers, too! It makes sense – good, successful leadership is all about developing talent, nurturing connections, and motivating people. You get to practice all these skills in sponsorship.
What advice would you give to those considering a sponsorship?
Katharina: It’s very important to carefully consider: what do I want to get out of it? What do I want to work on improving, and where do I need guidance? And then, once you are in a sponsorship relationship, you should review these regularly. As your career develops, your challenges and goals change, so it’s important to keep reflecting on them.
Ralf: The key ingredient to success is trust, both sides need to be honest with each other and transparent about what they want to give, and what they want to get out of this relationship. To be fair, it’s also very much about chemistry, some relations will work out great, but sometimes you will quickly realize you are not getting the results you want. And when that happens, then you must be honest and perhaps look for someone else to sponsor you – or someone for you to sponsor.
Sayed: I think that at this point everyone understands and agrees on the importance of inclusion and diversity, and sponsorship is invaluable when it comes to fostering both. Again, if you look at the statistics, you will find that women and minorities benefit from sponsorship way less than the typical Caucasian men. That’s something we need to change, and I would encourage all companies and leaders to promote sponsorship as a way to transform careers… and communities.
Find out more about sponsorship at Cisco in the latest CX EMEA Unplugged podcast with Phil Wolfenden, Pablo Steiner, and Aleksandra Dargiel.