Freelancers for charities

Mentoring - sometimes you just need a sponsor

Posted by Tony on 23/03/2021

This is the first in a series of blogs for Blume based on dialogues with people I have worked with to inform my work with leaders on Blume.

They need to be authentic to have value. But I’ve come to the conclusion that they need to be anonymous. What I can say is the people I’ve spoken with, whose experiences I am sharing, have signed off on what you’re reading.

One former colleague told me the biggest impact I had was as a sponsor.  We first met when I became CEO. She had already done remarkable work, delivering to a consistently high standard, expecting that others would also meet those standards - and happy to practically support people so they could.

Like me, you might be wondering, what’s the problem? "Steady as you go" supportive leadership would be all that’s required for such an outstanding and competent individual.

Well not quite. We’re all only human, after all.

She wasn’t looking for fame, but she was looking for reasonable recognition and for fairness. She had become used to unfair and unreasonable patterns of behaviour: she did the hard work  but others would often take the credit; she wasn’t able to attend board meetings; she was paid a lot less than others given what she did.

We also reflected ruefully on how others reacted: colleagues, men not women, often undermining, when they felt threatened and couldn’t meet high standards. We noticed that this reaction in general didn’t come from the very senior people we were working with but from more junior staff, competing for attention.

Why, I asked, did you put up with this? Because I assumed that’s how things were, I didn’t want to rock the boat, I wasn’t seeking the credit, I didn’t want to suffer from petty and pointless infighting.

Along with an understanding Chair, I worked with her to address those issues: she presented at high profile events, she regularly attended the board - and yes, she received a long overdue pay rise.

We agreed together how to achieve these outcomes - what to say, to whom, how and when.

So the interventions I made as CEO provided an opportunity for her to be valued for who she already was.  We worked together as mentor and coach, but in truth, that was reciprocal.  What she really wanted, and deserved, was a sponsor. And I and the organisation benefited enormously.

One final thought: she remarked that I needed to take risks to make this happen. I reflect that a leader needs to be conscious of the risks they take, and the potential consequences: of which more in another blog. 

In the context of working with leaders, it’s really important to build relationships of mutual trust and respect, recognising the context within which people are working, being able to distinguish between coaching, mentoring and sponsorship – developing the right combination for the individual to thrive.