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/

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