I recently moderated a panel at a conference and asked the group of successful executives to describe someone who has been instrumental in their careers. Two panelists eagerly jumped in with stories of bosses who had mentored, encouraged, and opened doors for them. Then, hesitantly at first, the last person shared a far different experience.
She lamented that she’d never been lucky enough to work for someone like that, and at times felt that the lack of an effective boss was career-derailing — even a personal failure. At one point she had worked for a leader who had started to coach her but was then replaced by someone with such a lack of political savvy that she learned to do exactly the opposite of whatever he advised. Eventually she figured out that instead of waiting for a boss who could advocate for her, she had to create a work-around.
As she spoke I noticed how many people in the audience were nodding their heads, and afterward she was flooded with questions.
A sponsor can be invaluable to helping you achieve your career goals and getting ahead in an organization. The first place we all look for an advocate is our immediate boss, the person who is closest to our work. A good advocate offers advice and mentorship while also shining a light on our potential — revealing capabilities that we may not know we have. We borrow an advocate’s confidence in us until we adopt it fully ourselves. One of the panelists recounted a story of how his boss had shocked him by suggesting him for a job before he was ready. He took it, and with his boss’s close guidance, learned as he went.
They also serve as role models, allowing us to see how we can accomplish what they’ve done. (This is one reason why representation is so critical to changing gender and racial imbalances in companies.)
But in my experience, having a career-supporting advocate is an uncommon find in our direct managers. Supervisors too often lack people development skills or organizational influence. Or they are too protective of their own status to risk elevating someone else.
So what should you do if you’re not one of the lucky ones with a powerful boss who supports you? First, know you’re in good company: The playing field isn’t as uneven as you may think. Second, use the following advice to find what you don’t have in your boss.
Create an advocacy team. Instead of having one person in your corner, consider putting together a team of people who can help you advance your career. Think broadly across levels and functions, both inside and outside your organization. Look for people whose careers are further along than yours and whose style or achievements you admire. It can help to write the qualities you want to develop and match them with a list of people who exhibit them.
You and Your Team Series
A graceful way to approach a potential advocate is to ask for advice. Rather than showing inadequacy, asking for advice makes people seem more credible, according to research from Harvard Business School and the Wharton School. Further, when people provide advice they become invested in it, and therefore in you. This doesn’t have to be formal, and in fact your advocates may not ever know that’s how you view them.
Being forced to assemble a group of advisers rather than having one great boss can be an advantage. If you’re too dependent on one person, you might fail to establish a resilient network and end up in the corporate abyss if your boss leaves the company. Further, while having your brand tied to one leader is an asset when that leader’s stock is rising, if the leader falls out of favor, that closeness can create a reputational hit.
Prioritize visibility. Without your boss putting you in front of stakeholders, you need to find your own platform. Look for cross-functional or internal projects that will involve or be debriefed to stakeholders. If one doesn’t exist, propose a project that aligns with the corporate values or vision or that solves a stated need.
For example, a client of mine volunteered to start a diversity and inclusion working group to determine why the company wasn’t attracting diverse talent above the manager level, despite its a stated corporate priority. She used her leadership and strategic skills to drive the process and presented the team’s findings to the executive team. The CEO created a VP of diversity role and promoted her into it.
Find the influencers and offer to help. In every organization there are centers of influence, some of which may not map to positional power. Think, for example, of the influence of a strategic adviser who retires from the executive team, or the CEO’s long-standing assistant.
Babson College professor Rob Cross advises drawing maps of how people are connected to show spheres of influence in the organization, paying special attention to those with large numbers of connections. His research shows how new employees can succeed without a formal mentor by developing productive relationships with key opinion leaders.
When you determine who the influencers are in your work, make yourself helpful to them. Look at what you can offer them rather than just what they can give you. Contribute to their efforts without expecting a short-term return. Trust in the long-term benefit of the relationship. Being a giver, as Wharton professor Adam Grant calls it, is often far more beneficial and effective than being just a taker.
Use positive outside pressure. Building your status outside the organization can often gain you visibility inside it. Corporate leaders notice who is visible to customers, stakeholders, and the broader industry. Professionals at any level can build a solid platform that has a greater reach than their position might indicate.
Choose a way to do this that is genuinely interesting to you. You might decide to join an industry association and work toward holding a leadership position there. You can build a following on social media by demonstrating expertise and engaging with known thinkers in your field. Corporate public relations departments are typically eager for employees to provide ideas and to be available for media interviews or article submissions. Ask the PR team how you can best assist them in their goals, and follow up on what they suggest. Bringing ideas around your interests and expertise — and continually feeding the PR team interesting topics — can make you a go-to resource.
Imagine a customer telling your leadership that one of the reasons they selected your company was because of an article you wrote about industry trends. This is not a farfetched concept: I have heard clients include industry recognition as an important factor when evaluating team members. It’s hard for even the best internal recognition to match external validation.
If you have the option, there’s no question that finding a supportive boss with influence is a direct benefit to your career. But even that may not be enough. Companies are dynamic, and having other ways to advocate for yourself — or having others do it — is a more sustainable approach. Building a range of supporters who can help you grow in diverse ways may be the best advantage you can have.