Career Curveballs: The Importance of Having and Being a Sponsor

This post was originally published on LinkedIn Influencers on April 28, 2014 as part of a series in which LinkedIn Influencers share how they turned setbacks into success. Read all their stories here.

Early in my career at Goldman Sachs, I almost quit to go to another firm. I joined as an analyst in 1988, was quickly promoted to a trader in 1990, but a few years later I was feeling stuck. My career had been moving so briskly forward that this prolonged feeling of being at a standstill made it feel like a setback. My response was to shop myself and find a similar position at another firm. Just before I was about to resign, a senior manager caught wind of it and intervened. In retrospect, leaving would have been the biggest mistake of my life, as only a few years later I made partner, and at the time, I became the youngest woman and first female trader to do so at Goldman Sachs. So why did I think I had to leave? What happened to save me from making such a bad decision? And, what did I learn that made me a better manager of others?

It was the early 90s and I was a junior trader on a desk full of more experienced ones. I had been working for some time in a secondary position to someone who was good at his job, but who was not very interested in helping me develop into everything I could be within my position. Nevertheless, I worked hard, kept my head down, and tried to earn more of his time and effort. I failed to manage up, my mistake, thinking that great performance and a good attitude alone would win him over. As time passed I grew resentful and truly did not know what to do differently. I began to think the only option I had was to leave.

As I was getting close to having an offer in hand with another firm, the head of my department caught wind of it, and he invited me to lunch. This person was someone I really respected and admired, but as his role at Goldman Sachs expanded, my direct contact with him had become very limited. However, I knew he liked me and supported me, and in that moment, I also knew that he would be both personally and professionally upset by my leaving the firm. I was petrified. Of course I immediately wondered why I did not go to him sooner. The conversation over lunch went something like this:

“Jacki, I heard you are talking to another firm. Why?” It did not take long for my feelings about the situation to come pouring out over that majestic dining room table. “Because I feel stuck. My direct manager is not invested in my development. I want to be partner one day, but I don’t feel like there is anyone really sponsoring me to make that happen. I never thought about leaving Goldman before but I did not know what else to do.” I went on and on.

He just sat there and listened to me, and when I was finished he simply asked me, “What do I need to do to have you stay?” I was shocked. After a moment to think it over I asked him to be my sponsor. This meant that I was asking him to take a greater interest in my career, including giving me the opportunity to trade a bigger book, to be involved in firm-wide initiatives that gave me exposure, and to be paid more and fairly. (I discovered my market value when I looked to go to another firm.)

After an hour of discussions he basically agreed to everything and I asked him to write it down and sign his name to it. He laughed at first, saying “We don’t do that at Goldman”, but I insisted, saying that it was just for me and him, and that this was what I needed to stay. On a cloth napkin he wrote out our agreement in bullet points, and at the bottom he signed his name – Michael Mortara.

The biggest blunder of my career would have been walking out the door of Goldman Sachs without first having that conversation. It was purely luck that Michael caught wind of my intentions and reached out to me when he did, because once I had accepted the amazing offer from the other firm, it would have been too late. So my advice is this: Before you decide to leave your current position, have that type of conversation with someone you know and trust at your firm, or better yet, someone who could serve as your champion and sponsor. Perhaps the challenges you currently face are both short term and in close range, and if someone could help you gain a long term and longer range perspective, those challenges just might look different.

Did things change overnight for me? No, they did not. I kept working for and with the same guy for a while, but I knew that there was an exit plan. I just had to work hard and wait it out. I had someone watching over me and my career. Knowing that I had a sponsor gave me greater confidence in my role, and allowed me to shed the angst that was holding me back. I felt secure and that made all the difference.

It was not long after that I did start to get the opportunities I had been looking for. I was invited to participate in firm-wide initiatives and became very active in recruiting. In time I had my own book to trade and soon after had a junior person working for me. I never forgot what it felt like to not be supported, and did my best to empower the junior person on my team. A few years later I was running the desk with a group of traders and to this day one of the things I am most proud of is what an incredible group it was. Was I a perfect manager? Of course not, and in hindsight there are so many things I could have done better. But I was a fearless and vocal champion for the talent on my team.

In 2000 I left my position as a desk manager and trader to take on a role in the Executive Office where my job was to help manage the careers of the firm’s Managing Directors. I served on the firm’s Partnership Committee, which has oversight of all aspects of human capital management. What became clear to me in reading the reviews of so many senior people is the importance of not only having a sponsor, but being one. Great companies have great people who work hard to develop the talent below them, beside them, and even above them. If you are working your way up the corporate ladder, who is the person who is invested in your success and will make sure that your talent is visible and you get the opportunities you deserve? If you can’t name that person then put this on the top of your to-do list. FIND A SPONSOR!

Michael Mortara passed away very suddenly in 2000 at the age of 51 while still working at Goldman Sachs. He was a legendary financial figure and a truly exceptional human being.

For a great read on the subject of sponsorship check out Forget a Mentor Find a Sponsor by Sylvia Ann Hewlett.

Photo: sezer66/Shutterstock.com

The Parable of the Fence and Other Lessons

Posted on LinkedIn Influencers on April 4, 2014.

I just spent the past two days in Chicago at the #womenleading Philanthropy Symposium, created by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Family School of Philanthropy. Over 300 people attended this conference, including many of the true trailblazers in philanthropy. The organizers could not have chosen a better title, because women’s leadership in giving is quickly emerging as a powerful and distinctive force. The Institute’s research on this trend has been critical for advancing the conversation on women’s roles in philanthropy, and research is crucial in framing how people think about issues, which in turn often leads to behavior change.

I recently wrote a previous article discussing how there are a number of trends worth paying attention to with regards to women in philanthropy, such as the growing financial power of women, the rise in women only giving circles and donor networks, and the infusion of a gender lens in both men and women’s giving strategies. I wrote that with the simultaneous rise of these trends, they are all coming together to create a zeitgeist. This idea was reinforced by the conversations and discussions at this conference, and left me with some important takeaways.

One of the biggest was the fact that the women, and the few good men, who were gathered in Chicago were not taking a business as usual kind of approach to their philanthropy. They were actively looking for new ideas and were anxious to forge collaborations in order to accelerate positive change. Everyone seemed to agree that collaborating was critical, and that collective action could potentially be transformative. In fact, the closing session, moderated by Susan McPherson and Sloane Davidson, highlighted a number of unique and innovative partnerships at work today, including one between the NGO Tostan, the Sundance Institute, Venice Arts, and the Skoll Foundation. These four organizations came together to tell the story of unbelievable community-based change in Africa, and in the process, highlighted the important role funders can play in bringing groups together to leverage their unique competencies.

In addition to creating and embracing strategic collaborations, attendees agreed that telling data-driven stories was very important. Funders want to see numbers to demonstrate impact, but there was healthy discussion around what can and cannot be measured, and at what cost. Women Moving Millions recently surveyed our own community of 200 members, and sure enough, how to measure impact emerged as a key topic our members want to learn more about. In order to gain a better understanding of impact in philanthropy, last year we asked the Center for High Impact Philanthropy to consider the question, “What is impact?”, and what emerged was a thoughtful analysis of the difference between outcome and impact, and how it can be very hard to measure either.

Finally, it would not be a conference on philanthropy without the issue of funding for operating costs making an appearance. I loved that more than one speaker spoke about the need for unrestricted support to their grantees. I could not agree more. One of my favorite articles on the subject is called “The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle” that appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. We simply must give the organizations we believe in the core support they need to do their work. Rousing applause also went to one brave soul who stood up and asked that we be sure to pay our staff appropriately to ensure that top talent remains in the sector, and that they are able to provide for their families while serving the world. But above all else, what emerged from this gathering was a sense of oneness and of being in it together, which is exactly how it should be.

The problems we face in the world are indeed complex, but judging by the passion that was on display in Chicago, women philanthropic leaders are up for the task. They truly want to ‘bring it’ for the causes they care about, including their money, their knowledge, their networks, their expertise, and most importantly, their leadership. As I took a break from my writing to eat my dinner on the plane home, I randomly opened to a page in the recent issue of O Magazine with the cover, “20 Questions Every Woman Should Ask Herself Today.” The question I happen to turn to was, “Am I helpful?” Unexpectedly, it was Gloria Steinem who provided an answer to that question.

In the article, she described being in a village in Zambia with a group of women when they learned that two women from their village had gone missing. These two women had gone to the city to prostitute themselves in order to provide for their families, and Gloria learned that this had become the only option for them when elephants had trampled their crops, leaving them unable to make a living from farming. Gloria asked what could help, and the women of the village said an electric fence, which Gloria and her friends then provided the money to procure. When Gloria returned a year later, the women of the village had harvested a bumper crop of maize, giving them food for a year and enough extra money to pay for their children’s school fees.

She calls this the parable of the fence and these are its lessons: “Helping begins with listening. Context is everything. People who experience the problem know best how to solve it. Big problems often have small solutions. And finally, do what you can.” Reflecting back on the past two days, I realized that each one of these wise lessons came up in some form or another, but never in a way that summarized them so beautifully. I know that the next time I am asked to speak at such a conference, I will be sure to share them.

Pictured above (left to right) – Dalila Wilson-Scott (Moderator), Jacki Zehner, and Julie Smolyansky (CEO – Lifeway Foods) at the Leading with Passion panel.

FROZEN Breaks Records and Cracks the Hollywood Glass Ceiling

FrozenPublished on LinkedIn Influencers on April 1st, 2014

This past weekend, Disney’s animated hit Frozen passed a historic landmark. Not only has Frozen become Walt Disney Animation Studio’s first billion dollar movie, but Frozen surpassed Pixar’s Toy Story 3 to become the highest grossing animated film of all time. Frozen currently sits in the top 10 highest grossing films worldwide, and with co-director Jennifer Lee at the helm, Frozen is also the highest grossing film with a woman director, and the highest grossing film to feature not one, but two female leads.

However, that’s not all Frozen has achieved, because this film is not just a hit, it’s become a pop culture phenomenon. The internet is filled with covers of its ubiquitous smash hit song, “Let it Go”, fan art abounds on social media, as does fan fiction, Youtube videos, and blogs dissecting every moment of every scene. The film has won Oscars, Annies, a BAFTA and Golden Globe award, and both the DVD and soundtrack have sold millions of copies. Frozen has struck a very powerful and vocal chord with audiences, and everyone; girls, boys, men, and women, are voicing their love for this film in ever increasingly creative ways.

Even more impressive is the fact that Frozen is not just an anomaly regarding women in film, but in fact was released in one of the best years for women onscreen in decades. 2013 will be remembered as the year that Catching Fire was the top grossing film domestically, the first time since records were kept that a film with a sole female lead took this honor. This was also the year that Gravity shattered box office records with its release in October, and over the Thanksgiving weekend, both Frozen and Catching Fire burned up the box office, bringing in record revenues. 2013 was the year that three films with female leads were in the top ten highest grossing films domestically, with another two (Despicable Me 2 and Oz the Great and Powerful) featuring a male lead surrounded by women and girls. However, as impressive as these numbers are, my hope for 2013’s legacy is that people finally realize how important the intent behind their tickets can be.

The fact is, despite the success of 2013, the situation in Hollywood regarding women both onscreen and off is still far from perfect. Even when the top grossing film of the year features a female lead, Hollywood still considers these films to be risky and a niche market. Behind the camera, women make up 50% of all film school graduates, but only 18% of the directors whose films screened at festivals between August 2011 and August 2012, 13.5% of the members of the Directors Guild of America, and 7% of the directors of the Top 250 grossing films between 2009-2012. I could throw plenty more statistics at you, but a picture is worth a thousand words, and this info graphic from the New York Film Academy sums up the situation pretty succinctly. It’s also pretty depressing.

However, if people were to realize the power they wield in simply going to the movies, then change can happen. By supporting women directed or women centered films, you are sending the message that women’s voices and stories are a viable business and worth putting on the big screen. By rejecting misogynistic and sexist films, you are sending the message that the discrimination and objectification of women on screen will no longer be tolerated. The truth is money talks, especially in Hollywood, and it is my hope that going forward, 2014 will be remembered as the year a critical mass of moviegoers realized that the price on their ticket stub is so much more than a simple number.

For more information on the status of women and film, please check out these incredible organizations and studies:

Sundance Institute – Exploring the Barriers and Opportunities for Independent Women Filmmakers

Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media – Gender Disparity On Screen and Behind the Camera In Family Films

Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film – On-Screen Representations of Female Characters in the Top 100 Films of 2013

Women in Film

Women and Hollywood

Jacki Zehner and Laura Moore