Carla Harris
4,558,665 views • 13:23

It was the spring of 1988 when I had the aha moment. I was at my first roundtable, and for those of you who don't know, the roundtable was a very commonly used phrase on Wall Street to describe the year-end evaluative process for analysts, associates, vice presidents, all the way up to managing directors. That was the process where they were discussed behind closed doors around a table, i.e. the round table, and everyone was put into a category — the top bucket, the middle bucket, the lower bucket — and then that was translated into a bonus range that would be assigned to each professional. This was my first time there, and as I observed, I saw that there was one person that was responsible for recording the outcome of a conversation. There were other people in the room that had the responsibility of presenting the cases of all the candidates. And there were other invited guests who were supposed to comment as a candidate's position was presented. It was interesting to me that those other people were folks who were more senior than the folks that were being discussed and they theoretically had had some interaction with those candidates.

Now, I was really excited to be at this roundtable for the first time, because I knew that my own process would go through this same way, and that my bonus would be decided in the same way, so I wanted to know how it worked, but more importantly, I wanted to understand how this concept of a meritocracy that every company that I talked to walking out of business school was selling. Every time I talked to a company, they would say, "Our culture, our process, is a meritocracy. The way you get ahead in this organization is that you're smart, you put your head down and you work really hard, and you'll go right to the top. So here was my opportunity to see exactly how that worked.

So as the process began, I heard the recorder call the first person's name. "Joe Smith." The person responsible for presenting Joe's case did just that. Three quarters of the way through, someone interrupted and said, "This is a great candidate, outstanding, has great analytical and quantitative skills. This is a superstar." The recorder then said, "Sounds like Joe should go in the top bucket." Second person, Mary Smith. Halfway through that presentation, someone said, "Solid candidate. Nothing really special, but a good pair of hands." The recorder said, "Sounds like Mary should go in the middle bucket." And then someone said, "Arnold Smith." Before the person could present Arnold's case, somebody said, "Disaster. Disaster. This kid doesn't have a clue. Can't do a model." And before the case was presented, the recorder said, "Sounds like Arnold should go in the bottom bucket."

It was at that moment that I clutched my pearls —


and said, "Who is going to speak for me?" Who is going to speak for me? It was that moment that I realized that this idea of a meritocracy that every organizations sells is really just a myth. You cannot have a 100 percent meritocratic environment when there is a human element involved in the evaluative equation, because by definition, that makes it subjective. I knew at that moment that somebody would have to be behind closed doors arguing on my behalf, presenting content in such a way that other decision makers around that table would answer in my best favor.

That was a really interesting lesson, and then I said to myself, "Well, who is that person? What do you call this person?" And as I thought about the popular business terms at the time, I said, wow, this person can't be a mentor, because a mentor's job is to give you tailored advice, tailored specifically to you and to your career aspirations. They're the ones who give you the good, the bad and the ugly in a no-holds-barred way. OK. Person can't be a champion or an advocate, because you don't necessarily have to spend any currency to be someone's champion. You don't necessarily get invited to the room behind closed doors if you're an advocate.

It was almost two years later when I realized what this person should be called. I was speaking at the University of Michigan to the MBA candidates, talking about the lessons that I had learned after my three short years on Wall Street, and then it came to me. I said, "Oh, this person that is carrying your interest, or as I like to say, carrying your paper into the room, this person who is spending their valuable political and social capital on you, this person who is going to pound the table on your behalf, this is a sponsor. This is a sponsor."

And then I said to myself, "Well, how do you get a sponsor? And frankly, why do you need one?" Well, you need a sponsor, frankly, because as you can see, there's not one evaluative process that I can think of, whether it's in academia, health care, financial services, not one that does not have a human element. So that means it has that measure of subjectivity. There is a measure of subjectivity in who is presenting your case. There is a measure of subjectivity in what they say and how they interpret any objective data that you might have. There is a measure of subjectivity in how they say what they're going to say to influence the outcome. So therefore, you need to make sure that that person who is speaking, that sponsor, has your best interests at heart and has the power to get it, whatever it is for you, to get it done behind closed doors.

Now, I'm asked all the time, "How do you get one?" Well, frankly, nirvana is when someone sees you in an environment and decides, "I'm going to make it happen for you. I'm going to make sure that you are successful." But for many of us in this room, we know it doesn't really happen that way.

So let me introduce this concept of currency and talk to you about how it impacts your ability to get a sponsor. There are two types of currency in any environment: performance currency and relationship currency. And performance currency is the currency that is generated by your delivering that which was asked of you and a little bit extra. Every time you deliver upon an assignment above people's expectations, you generate performance currency. It works exactly like the stock market. Any time a company says to the street that they will deliver 25 cents a share and that company delivers 40 cents a share, that stock goes up, and so will yours. Performance currency is valuable for three reasons. Number one, it will get you noticed. It will create a reputation for you. Number two, it will also get you paid and promoted very early on in your career and very early on in any environment. And number three, it may attract a sponsor. Why? Because strong performance currency raises your level of visibility in the environment, as I said earlier, such that a sponsor may be attracted to you. Why? Because everybody loves a star. But if you find yourself in a situation where you don't have a sponsor, here's the good news. Remember that you can exercise your power and ask for one.

But here's where the other currency is now most important. That is the relationship currency, and relationship currency is the currency that is generated by the investments that you make in the people in your environment, the investments that you make in the people in your environment. You cannot ask someone to use their hard-earned personal influential currency on your behalf if you've never had any interaction with them. It is not going to happen. So it is important that you invest the time to connect, to engage and to get to know the people that are in your environment, and more importantly to give them the opportunity to know you. Because once they know you, there's a higher probability that when you approach them to ask them to be your sponsor, they will in fact answer in the affirmative.

Now, if you're with me and you agree that you have to have a sponsor, let's talk about how you identify a sponsor. Well, if you're looking for a sponsor, they need to have three primary characteristics. Number one, they need to have a seat at the decision-making table, they need to have exposure to your work in order to have credibility behind closed doors, and they need to have some juice, or let me say it differently, they'd better have some power. It's really important that they have those three things.

And then once you have identified the person, how do you ask for one? The script goes like this. "Jim, I'm really interested in getting promoted this year. I've had an amazing year and I cannot show this organization anything else to prove my worthiness or my readiness for this promotion, but I am aware that somebody has to be behind closed doors arguing on my behalf and pounding the table. You know me, you know my work and you are aware of the client feedback, and I hope that you will feel comfortable arguing on my behalf." If Jim knows you and you have any kind of a relationship, there's a very high probability that he will answer yes, and if he says yes, he will endeavor to get it done for you.

But there's also a shot that Jim might say no, and if he says no, in my opinion, there's only three reasons that he would tell you no. The first is he doesn't think that he has enough exposure to your work to have real credibility behind closed doors to be impactful and effective on your behalf. The second reason he may tell you no is that you think he has the juice to get it done, but he knows that he does not have the power to do it and he is not going to admit that in that conversation with you.


And the third reason that he would tell you no, he doesn't like you. He doesn't like you.


And that's something that could happen. But even that will be valuable information for you that will help to inform your next conversation with a sponsor that might make it a little bit more impactful.

I cannot tell you how important it is to have a sponsor. It is the critical relationship in your career. A mentor, frankly, is a nice to have, but you can survive a long time in your career without a mentor, but you are not going to ascend in any organization without a sponsor. It is so critical that you should ask yourself regularly, "Who's carrying my paper into the room? Who is carrying my paper into the room?" And if you can't answer who is carrying your paper into the room, then I will tell you to divert some of your hardworking energies into investing in a sponsor relationship, because it will be critical to your success.

And as I close, let me give a word to the would-be sponsors that are in the room. If you have been invited into the room, know that you have a seat at that table, and if you have a seat at the table, you have a responsibility to speak. Don't waste your power worrying about what people are going to say and whether or not they think you might be supporting someone just because they look like you. If somebody is worthy of your currency, spend it. One thing I have learned after several decades on Wall Street is the way to grow your power is to give it away, and your voice is at the heart.


And your voice is at the heart of your power. Use it.

Thank you very much.