Podcast Episode 6: Sponsorship is Key for Career Growth

Most people are familiar with the term mentor, but do you know what it means to have a sponsor? A mentor may show you the ropes and perhaps serve as a coach but a sponsor acts as an advocate to help you achieve specific career goals. A sponsor makes connections and promotes visibility to leaders and others. DHG Alumni Partner, Gary Thomson was sponsor to many and provided his insights into sponsorship and the benefits on both sides of the equation.


AGH: Hello everyone and welcome back to another episode of our DHG podcast series. I’m Alice Grey Harrison your host and I really love this venue because I get to talk with all of our people about the things that matter the most to them; flexibility, careers and people. Today I’m really excited to have with me Gary Thompson, he is the Managing Partner of our Mid-Atlantic region and I’ve had the honor of working really closely with Gary for the past, what, four years now?

GT: Yes.

AGH: Four or five years? We started working together when Dixon Hughes and Goodman and Company merged together and I took on an internal communications role at that point, we had a lot of change management going on and I would say that since the first day we started working together, Gary’s been a great sponsor for me. And so in celebration of women’s history, I couldn’t think of anyone better than Gary to share with us the role of a sponsor. So that’s what Gary is here today to talk about. Welcome Gary.

GT: Thank you Alice Grey, it’s great to be here with you.

AGH: Let’s start by defining sponsorship, there’s a lot of lingo out there that is fairly new and I think sponsor is one of those new terms over the past 10 years. How do you define it?

GT: You know, sponsorship obviously in the generic sense means a lot of different things. You can watch a NASCAR race weekend and see someone’s name on the side of a car and say that’s a sponsorship. But in the context of the opportunity that we have to work with people, I think sponsorship to me, Alice Grey, is about investing in someone else’s career success. So being focused on someone else’s development as a future leader in whatever context leadership may mean to them future wise. Being willing to not only advocate but also to directly use whatever influence you may have within the organization to make sure the person’s talents are noticed, appreciated, and of course more importantly recognized through career advancement. I think many times it’s just helping people understand and then navigate the complexities of an organization. So, Alice Grey, when you and I began working together many years ago, we had the complexities of firms coming together - multiple regions, service lines and industry leaders and an organization like we have, really understanding how to navigate is an important role that a sponsor can play for someone.

AGH: Yes, absolutely. I totally agree with you, and one thing, let me just also say that I’m going to spill the beans for Dixon Hughes Goodman, but we will be rolling out a more formal sponsorship initiative and program in the coming months that will flow directly from our work for inclusion and diversity as well as Women Forward. So mentorship, in the accounting industry, and in all industries, there have been mentorships for as long as we’ve had professions. How’s a sponsorship different than a mentorship?

GT: Yeah, great question and it’s not one that we need to look at as a good or bad thing, it’s really different opportunities. So when you think of a mentorship, really thinking of someone who is involved in listening, advising, helping to problem solve, someone just to have a confidential, organic conversation with, someone that helps build confidence in who you are and what you’re trying to do. Maybe at times it’s someone to give the preverbal shoulder to cry on, and really, it’s more of an opportunity to get to know someone, share wisdom, steer in a direction. When I talk about a sponsorship, I think it is more proactive, specific actions and intended results. I think for me, sponsorship is about making it a privilege to help them get results, the person that I’m working for. Spend a little “personal capital” to help the person get the results they’re looking for a little bit sooner, better or whatever the specific results that they’re after. There’s certainly some overlap between the two. I think advice is present in being a sponsor as well as being a mentor. Feedback is certainly there, a career guide of some type is certainly common to both of them. I think the proactive nature of being a sponsor is really what distinguishes the role and the willingness to invest the time and capital to allow a person to succeed is the difference.

AGH: That definitely makes sense to me. In your experience being a sponsor, are there common qualities that have stood out to you among the people that you sponsored?

GT: Yeah, absolutely Alice Grey, that’s a great question because I think to be a good sponsor you really have to believe in the people and to believe in someone. I think there’s a set of characteristics that would be common. Now, understand that each of us look at things differently. You and I have worked together long enough to know that we don’t necessarily think alike. We think in a more complimentary terms. I think one of the difficulties in agreeing to be a sponsor is that you have to look beyond your current likes and dislikes or maybe better said, your personality traits. And so, in the past, I would tend to have gone to people who think, look, act in common desires, maybe they played golf, maybe they liked the same football team. But when you really look at the type of characteristics or qualities that I appreciate in someone that I have the opportunity to work for, someone that has a lot of talent, someone that’s extraordinarily dedicated to whatever is they’re trying to accomplish. I do want to be sure that this concept is a lot wider than just the billable professionals, the people who put time in and who clients pay. It’s the entire organization, whatever level they are or whatever their desire is, their dedication to the firm, loyalty could be another word. I really enjoy seeing people who put people first. Then of course a lot of hard work, people who are willing to dedicate hard work. You know, you are as a sponsor being asked to put your own personal capital on the line. Much like within our firm Alice Grey, we expect cross sales or cross referrals. So when I refer an opportunity to another partner or someone else in the firm, I’m putting my reputation on the line when I hand to them a respective client or a current client. I think much the same way into sponsorship. They want to know the person they’re going to put capital on the line for. There’s someone that’s going to work hard and make the whole organization look good. I think that people who I’ve had the opportunity to work with, when you’re asking the standpoint of common qualities, they themselves are willing to help others and look good. What do I mean by that? And I want to say this in the right term, but some of the people that I’ve had the opportunity to work with have been the very people that have allowed me to “look good” within the organization. Because they’ve been so dedicated to my clients, to the leadership opportunities that I had and some ways, I always look at it as a reverse sponsorship because while I’m helping advocate for them, helping them with the organizational dynamics. They’re actually part of my team as well and they, at the end of the day, make what I’m trying to do look better as well. I could not have been able to enjoy the opportunities with them in this firm in my career without the willingness of some folks that I “sponsored,” but in reality,they get to work with me and do a great job. Talent, dedication, loyalty, people first, the willingness to make others look good while they’re climbing the corporate ladder. There’s a balance of all those qualities that I’ve seen in the people that I’ve had the opportunity to work with.

AGH: Those are some really great points. So, thinking about the people that you’ve worked with, is there something that stands out in your mind in terms of success that you’ve been very proud to observe in terms of people really rising to the occasion because you gave them the opportunity?

GT: Well I think there’s a balance in how I answer that question, Alice Grey, because we all want to be humbled and reserved enough to not necessarily try to attribute any one person of success to what we’ve done. When I look at a number of the opportunities that I had to work with people, it’s just a great pleasure to see people accomplish their goals. As I’ve had a chance to sponsor them, each of them has come with different goals, it’s someone that’s involved in marketing or someone that’s involved in internal communications or corporate communications or a partner who wants to be an assurance partner or an advisory partner. Each of those goals are specific to them. If I were to proverbially close my eyes right now and start looking through my memory of the people, whether it’s been to lead as a partner in an initiative or to be a partner in a firm, there really has been no greater pleasure than to see people get the well-earned respect they deserve and to see them accomplish their goals. I think that for me, when I’m able to hear others unsolicited and without really saying it to me, because I know the person, but they would say to me, “Have you met Alice Grey? Have you met Lesley? Or have you met Angela? Or have you met Christine?” You can go through the list of people that you’ve had a chance to work with them, they talk about how good these folks are. When I’m copied on the emails to talk about the great work that someone’s done, or better yet, I had someone recently talk about someone that I’ve had the privilege of working with and there comment was: “How did we ever do it without this person?” I think that’s the thrilling part of being a sponsor is to really see people accomplish their goals and to be thrilled about it and for others to recognize it. And so I think the other part of it is, it’s great to see them engage in their career now as opposed to having to worry about how to get out of this to make it the next level. You see that transition taking place when they’ve been sponsored. They’ve gotten to the point where that’s a less of a worry now as to whether I can do it. They’re given the opportunity and they can be solely focused on the mission of the firm, which is to help our people succeed and to help our clients reach their own successes. And so, it’s great to take pride in the titles that they accomplish, but really, it’s a greater sense of pride seeing them engage and feeling really part of this firm and be completely focused on what they can do to help their firm succeed as opposed to how do I get there. I hate to get anything specific about people for purposes of embarrassment or humility but it really is just about seeing people happy and fully engaged in the firm.

AGH: Yeah, I would add to that, the other thing from the other side of the fence, I would say that it also gives that person a sense of confidence that maybe they didn’t have because I know that for myself, all of a sudden, somebody else believes I can do this. Okay, I can do this. I think that’s an interesting result of successful sponsorship.

GT: This is another part of that, Alice Grey, too, and there’s a part of you, you don’t necessarily recognize this, but there’s other part that recognizes that it’s a matter of success. When they stop calling you on a regular basis, I’m not saying they don’t call you not to connect and see what’s up. But I get very excited about knowing they are there, they are confident, they feel like they have the place where they belong. Now, when the conversations take place it’s at a completely different level, and frankly, I could talk for hours about that, Alice Grey, about this personal fulfillment that it brings to people who get involved in sponsoring, you recognize you had a hand in their success. Quite frankly, you now have some time to go find the next person who needs sponsoring so that you can continue to see that replicated throughout the firm.

AGH: Yeah, it is really cool to watch. Okay, I’m going to switch gears for just a second. This is Women’s History Month and our Women Forward program and our Inclusion and Diversity program are both very much working towards creating a culture that automatically has sponsors. Why is sponsorship so important to our inclusion and diversity efforts?

GT: Well, when you go back to Maximus’ comments, even from our recent channel video, which are focused on our firm strategy, and this is obviously a major element of our strategy to have inclusion and diversity, and as we talked earlier in the conversation, these things just don’t happen, the statistics really are overwhelming. I know the executive committee leadership team has had a lot of conversation around this individuals who are sponsored, are more engaged in their career. When you look at our strategic plan or strategy and we talk about innovation, people who are sponsored where someone has your back, are willing to take the appropriate risk and innovate from just an overall business perspective, individuals who are sponsored are likely to stay with an organization longer and are more focused on client success versus their own success. So, you can almost look at this and say why wouldn’t we want it? It’s amazing when you read all the literature out there around this subject and talk to individuals who have been sponsored, you ask yourself the question “Why wouldn’t I want to do that?” As it relates to Women Forward and our role in the inclusion and diversity initiative, I must look at this as kind of a double intentionality. It’s not only meeting our goals around women leadership in the firm, inclusion and diversity goals but it’s really about empowering these individuals to be the future leaders of our firm, and by doing that, we not only have more diversity in our leadership group, but it opens the door for our future employees to see that, which will make our employee ranks more diverse and the more diverse we are as an employee group, the more diverse we are as a client group. You can take that on down the multiple levels. Just for those that would look at this purely from a business imperative, that’s really easing nature. We need to do this, but hopefully we’ll do it for more than just a business imperative. It’s the imperative of this that I think really makes this firm tick very well. I think we won’t get to where we want to go just by talking about it. Attending seminars and sending emails out, promoting this, we will only get there when individuals really personally appropriate, or personally take the responsibility, find the right people, commit the necessary time for sponsorship. Frankly, even be willing to set aside some of their own career opportunities to give other people a chance to lead. I think a true sponsor, or a good sponsor, is willing to step aside and say, “You know what, rather than me doing this, why don’t’ you do this or why don’t I plug you in here. I got the call for this but I’d rather ask Max, Kent Satterfield or Effin Logue or my regional partner. Rather than me, why don’t you have this person do it? I think that’s the people side of it as well. So to get back to your “why is this important? It is in every level, Alice Grey, growth, our people strategy, who we want to be as a firm in terms of the image that we want, to get to where we want to go with our inclusion and diversity goals, we have to be able to sponsor. To truly do this well, you may give up something in order to gain long term benefit of the firm. If our people see leaders and sponsors willing to give up something for the good of the firm, it not only creates a culture of people who are going to be willing to do that, but you begin this generational effort of more and more doing that. You may have seen it, I can’t recall specifically which commercial it is, but there’s a commercial out there, one person does a good deed and the next thing you know is the person that had the good deed goes it and then it multiplies.

AGH: Yes.

GT: I think in this way, the opportunity to go out and sponsor just makes people more willing to sponsor and do that for others in the future.

AGH: That’s right, it’s very inspiring to think of it in those terms. I feel very inspired that we work for a firm that values that and believes that everyone deserves this opportunity. I’m really excited about our sponsorship initiative that will be rolling out in the next several months and I’m excited that I get to be a part of it.

GT: Yeah, another thing about this, Alice Grey, is I think it would be easy for some who would look at this from a different perspective to say, I didn’t need that and I got here or you’re just trying to help people along but back to our earlier comment, we’re talking about people who have immensely dedicated challenges. Really all about people at DHG who want to work hard. People are not going to succeed in this profession if they don’t work hard, if they’re not dedicated, they’re not loyal. We’re talking about taking good people and empowering them, we’re not talking about taking people who don’t want to work hard and enabling them. Really talking about taking folks and helping them succeed, and I think that’s the exciting part of why we should do it. It makes us better.

AGH: That’s a really good point for the nay sayers that we may have out there and I know there’s got to be one or two.

GT: You know, Alice Grey, when I think back on my own personal career and what we would now determine an inclusion and diversity type of effort, I wouldn’t have necessarily been in any of those population groups, but at the same time, the one thing that made such a huge difference for me early in my career, back in the dark ages of the big eight accounting world, was an individual who truly believed in me and his responsibility to make sure that I showed up at the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce of that I was involved in recruiting. I saw the practice wider than just being an SCC audit person. I look back on that. We didn’t call it sponsorship, Alice Grey, we did not necessarily have, he was not part of what we would call on our firm right now, performance management type system or anything of that nature, no people strategy around it. He was an individual but I enjoyed working for him and I think I must have done a good enough job, he said, “You know what, this is a young guy that I’m going to take under my wings and work with.” While we’re putting the emphasis on this, and rightfully so, because of the need for us to include the increased diversity of our firm, this is really a common sense effort for us, we just need to be more intentional about getting beyond what our comfort levels are, so we don’t always go to people who look and act like us. We are increasing the span and breadth of what we do for our folks every day.

AGH: That’s a great point to raise as well. Well we’re closing in on our time together, is there anything else that you want to add before we wrap up?

GT: I find just great satisfaction in seeing our people fully engaged, frankly, there’s nothing better than that. It’s an interesting phenomenon to me that you can become so engaged in walking them through land mines and opening doors and helping them become empowered that you wake up one day and realize that they don’t’ need you. It’s really the neatest and greatest sense of accomplishment that you can have professionally, to say, these people you believed in, because of who they are, they’ve now gotten to the point where they appreciate your involvement but now they’re completely empowered in their career. They now have the impetus to go do that themselves and you now have the time to go find someone else to sponsor. So while you don’t lose a relationship, you got this great feeling for them and for you. For those that want to look at “what am I going to get out of this?” You’re going to get a sense of accomplishment out of it. For those that are going to be on the recipient end, hopefully we allow them to feel the empowerment and the career opportunities. Frankly, the most enjoyable thought that I have is that one day one of the individuals that I’ve had a chance to work with will become my boss. What a great thing to think you’ve got some really good people out there who succeeded so well that one day they’re the person to whom you report. I think that if we all look at it that way, we’re going to make DHG a great place to work.

AGH: That’s awesome, thank you and thank you so much for taking some time out of your busy day to talk with me.

GT: Thank you Alice Grey.

AGH: Thank you for listening to Life at DHG, it’s our premier podcast series. If you like what you just heard, we hope you’ll tell your friends and colleagues, be sure to check out our DHG blog for more great stories about our Life Beyond Numbers. Join us next time for another edition of Life at DHG.

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