Career Reflection: Opening Doors for Others

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I am approaching the final week before I turn in my letter of resignation and make my plans public. I will publish updates as this evolves, but I wanted to start with reflection of something I realized in my last two years of working:  Focus on opening doors for others. 

There were a few specific moments in my career where others opened doors for me: One co-worker was integral in supporting me to a hiring manager that helped me get out of a bad situation early in my career to something where I could exponentially grow my income and skill set.  Seven years later I had two people openly support me for a promotion in front of an entire leadership team which changed my professional trajectory.  I had obtained financial independence and would likely leave the workforce early:  It was my turn to ensure I was opening doors for others.

Note:  I’m writing a number of posts leading into the immediacy of early retirement:  

Part 1: Early Retirement and FAQs

The Background

The inevitability of leaving a company/career after fifteen years meant I was going to give up my title, position, and influence within the company.  “Roster management” was important in my prior role. I had a direct team I managed but also had 20+ employees under my span of control and who’s work and performance either supported my team or directly impacted my performance measurements. I worked for someone who was exceptional at “roster management” and those skills rubbed off on me.

I invested a disproportionate amount of time getting to know people and maintaining a large network inside the company. While doing this I was also evaluating people’s aptitude, motivation, and skill set.  I hired for a position that required a high level of motivation and ability to learn on the job.  This time I invested in people left me in the intentional situation of consistently having more people wanting to come to work for me than spots available on my team.  I had a robust bench of internal candidates  when someone took a promotion or needed to make a change.  I became known as someone who would give advice and often help those internal candidates progress their career even if another opportunity came up before the chance of working for me.   

Sponsorship vs. Mentorship   

I don’t know where I read this or heard this first, but it went something along the lines of “employees are over mentored and under sponsored”.  The context of this was specifically talking about career progression for women & minorities, but anyone can be stuck in a culture that over mentors and under sponsors.  I happened to work in a culture where this was pervasive. 

The company would have a mentoring program assigned after a training program, a second mentoring program setup for high performing employees, and constant “career” conversation included in annual reviews. They also find reasons to celebrate anything for recognition, promising employees exposure and recognition.  Women and minority groups would have various affinity groups inside the company with a focus on career development and inclusiveness.  All of these things were put in place, but there was no culture of sponsorship.*  

What is the difference?  A mentor will give advice to an employee with open ears.  They’ll enjoy a meal, coffee, and listen and provide advice.  Sponsorship is the willingness so be in a closed door meeting with other members in leadership (or an one on one meeting with a higher up) and put their personal credibility on the line by saying “I believe this person can take on the job”.  I’ll say from experience that mentorship is easy but sponsorship is hard.  If you sponsor people who don’t work out, it hurts your credibility.  If you sponsor too many people, your sponsorship looses its value.  If you’re the only person practicing sponsorship, you can be an outlying speaker in a room where others are afraid to sponsor.    

Effective Sponsorship:

As a manager & leader, it is the expectation and culture that you will fight for your people.  I would attend leadership meetings and when people and career management came up, it would inevitably become a meeting where each manager would publicly espouse their own people then we would move on to the next manager.  I made a decision in this meeting to start provide a 2nd to a manager supporting one of their employees if that person was good.   

I had an abundance of opportunities to talk about my own team and started utilizing the opportunities I had to talk about people outside of my direct span of control and specifically some of the people I observed being under-sponsored.   I worked in a culture that loved to recognize the top person in some short-term measurement, but failed to recognize consistent performance over a long period of time.  This was immensely frustrating because the employee in the latter position was often generating the highest financial results.  I related intensely to this situation, as it was something I was dealing with myself.  My team produced outstanding financial results for the company in an area that lacked results for seven years prior to my arrival, but would not necessarily rank #1 on various misguided scorecards. **  

A Specific Example:  

There was an employee that worked as an indirect report of mine for two and a half years.  She was in a position that would refer business to my team, support my team, and had its own profit center who’s results roll up into my financial results.   We had a couple of career decisions, but she leaned on the side of being more cautious in the frequency/intensity of these discussion when compared to her peers.  She was instead spending that time working on activities that benefited the company.     

Her profit center had produced outstanding results since she took it over three years ago.  These results were the type of results that weren’t necessarily from being the best at anything, but she did all the small things right and the cumulative results beat all of her peers over a long period of time.  She suffered from the same reporting issues I faced, where the environment wanted to recognize the #1 center in a certain category, or the top profit center in a short period of time (monthly, quarterly).  Those result recognitions didn’t necessarily recognize the person and teams returning the most value to the company/shareholders over a long period of time.   

I had another career discussion with her and she could have easily had the next spot or two that opened on my team.  However, the highest and best use of her talents was for her to become a manager in her current division.  She was beloved by her employees and peers and had the right work ethic and approach to do the job.   I knew if that position opened, she was on the list of people that would be considered, but not necessarily be the selection for the job.  It was time for sponsorship.

The Sponsorship:

Sponsorship started with a couple of opportunities in leadership team meetings to mention what she had done.  I would give updates on my line of business and be sure to fit in something she did.  Her manager was going through employee potential and career and when this employee’s name came up, I was sure to say “I would trust her with more responsibility” and “We should consider her for a number of leadership roles that could come up.”    I first made it clear what my opinion and trust level was for this person.    

The big opportunity came on a division wide call.   The our local EVP decided that each division manager was going to have a spot in the second half of the year to highlight their business’s performance for 400+ people to hear.   I was given fifteen minutes to highlight my division’s performance.  I tactfully used the time to point out what has gone well, where it needed to improve, and what our goals are for the remainder of the year.

Then towards the end of my segment, I say something along these lines:  “I wanted to specifically recognize what ____ has done with xyz location.   We have talked a lot about cumulative financial results being a product of doing the small things right.   She took over a segment that was deep in the red three years ago and is now one of our best performing locations.  This didn’t happen without a lot of hard work and I wanted to say thank you to _____”.    It was said in a way to both compliment what she had done, but also to help motivate her peers to take on the same behaviors for success.   I know she got a bunch of calls from her peers and those comments were the talk of the group for a few days since it was different than what they were used to in the company.  

The Result:

Four months later a member of leadership in her division left the company and the ideal position comes open.  The hiring manager for this leadership position knows the sponsored employee is good, but now also knows that she has the trust of other people in leadership.   He sets up dinner for his visiting boss and the three of them have the three hour dinner and “get to know you” interview that the leading candidate gets.   She nails the interview dinner and ultimately lands the job.   It was her hard work and effort that earned the promotion and sponsorship helped elevate the visibility of that performance.  

Fortunately for me and the hiring manager, the sponsorship has worked out well.  In fact, she’s done so well in the job in the first year that she is in the near the top in stack ranking in the company and survived the politics of a reduction in management roles.  One of her peers with seven more years of experience was forced to relocate while she not only kept her spot, but picked up additional responsibility and visibility in the change.

Final Thoughts:

So why I am writing about this?   As an early retiree, I am about to accomplish something that only a small portion of the population is able and/or willing to do.  I didn’t get here alone, there were people along the way who opened doors for me that allowed me to increase my income almost nine times from my initial offer letter to final salary.  Financial independence would have taken a lot longer without the increases in income and I owe it to the people who did that to me to pay it forward through opening doors for others. 

If you are an early retiree, think about the people who opened doors for you and who you can turn around and open doors for.  Open thee doors then encourage someone to walk through that door.   I have realized that I’m not going to remember the deals I did or the bonuses I made once work is gone.   I’m going to remember is the people I’ve worked with, the friends that I’ve made, and the doors that I’ve opened for others.  I don’t want to be remembered for as being the person who made X title by X age, but I want to be remembered for the people’s lives I was able to impact for the better.  


*This isn’t meant to be a post about diversity, but the lack of a sponsorship culture at our company meant those who were promoted often were promoted because they had the longest tenure with the company.    The industry I work in is already full of old Caucasian men and when you combine this with the lack of a sponsorship culture, we rightfully earned the joke of “stale, pale, and male” with diversity outcomes worse than both the market and the industry.  There are a number of other things I would change to improve opportunity and outcomes, including an open interview process for executive vice president level positions, forced consideration for at least one person outside of the company, and panel based interviews.  Part of addressing the diversity challenge is breaking habits of “This is always the way we’ve done it” and being willing to fail.   The toughest habit to break inside my company is the control currently held by a hiring manager and his/her manager for placing high level leadership positions in the company.  

**Ironically my team’s financial results came at the expense of not pushing certain products that upper management wanted pushed.  We were providing financial services and as professionals time was our biggest resource.  I would coach my team that time spent on pushing products we were mediocre at delivering, a client may not really need, or was unlikely to close always came at the expense of working on the things our organization was great at delivering and mutually beneficial to both clients and my employer.  You would think this “product pushing” would have ended after the Wells Fargo issue, but it was made clear inside our company that “that is a retail bank issue” and “doesn’t impact the commercial teams”.   

This stance unfortunately promoted some less than ethical behavior, including opening new accounts when unnecessarily to appear great on some reports.  Subsequently, I observed peers of mine with worse financial results earning promotions and pay increases based on how they looked on product driven reports.  The only motivation behind this system is tracking all these various product sales was to justify the organization’s decision to maintain these mediocre lines of business instead of shutting them down.  The root of this problem was underlying competency issues inside the strategy group designing these reports and not necessarily the intention of driving unethical behavior. 

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