Sponsorship as an Exit Strategy

So you’re a consultant. You’ve presumably been hired to champion solving some new, challenging, or risky problem that prompted staffing of folks outside the usual internal teams. 

And it’s been going really, really well. You’ve asked all the right questions coming in. Execution of the plan you’ve helped the client create–which they’re thrilled about, by the way–is clicking along smoothly.

But there’s one little hiccup looming in the distance. 

No Exit, a Consultant’s Dilemma

There’s a saying that we are what we repeatedly do. In the course of doing the work, you’ve become the primary hands (or even the only hands) touching that work, leading that work, thinking deeply about that work. Maybe the client teammates you’re closest to have come to automatically pass anything related to that work onto you, as a reflex. 

In repeatedly doing the work, you have functionally become that work. 

As the project end date approaches, you’ve written your documentation and tried to dispense all of your best advice. But how can you feel confident that the client can carry forward whatever greatness you leave in their hands, when you ultimately go?

To this end, we can turn to a tool that is a hot topic in today’s corporate Equity, Diversity and Inclusion circles: sponsorship.

Wait, What Is Sponsorship? 

Let’s pause on that word and make sure we’re all on the same page about what it means. 

To sum up the vast trove of Harvard Business Review articles on the topic, sponsorship is an ongoing act of advocacy in the workplace. Where a mentor offers the gift of guidance with no real stakes beyond the cost of an occasional coffee, a sponsor puts whatever clout they have on the line to actively champion their protégé. Rather than focusing on administering advice, sponsors focus on opening up opportunities to shine, ideally highly visible ones that give their protégé a real path to professional growth. 

Sponsorship is, at its best, an everyone-wins scenario. The protégé gets to level-up in a meaningful way, with a sense of support from above. Meanwhile, the sponsor grooms a future leader and looks good as their protégé succeeds.

Traditionally, a sponsor is expected to have a seat at the capital “T” Table in their company. This gives them a real ability to raise their protégé’s name in the rooms where all the cool project assignments, promotions, and more are discussed. 

But other exciting models for sponsorship have emerged in recent years. A great one is Lara Hogan’s culture of sponsorship, where anyone can be a sponsor, regardless of Tables. In this magical peer-to-peer world, any time we can genuinely highlight the skills or experience of a colleague is a sponsorship opportunity. By drawing attention to people’s technical and leadership strengths, even in little ways, we can bolster our teammates’ confidence and empower them to grow with consistent, everyday opportunities to shine.

Now that we’re all on the same page about what sponsorship means, let’s get back to how sponsorship can help us set our clients up for success long after we leave their sides.

Hand-off as a Habit

How can we, in the midst of doing the work, arrive at a place where we can confidently stop doing the work and hand it off to the folks who hired us? 

We have to make new champions. The playbook here is pretty much Lara Hogan’s culture of sponsorship, but focused on the specifics of the work that we have become. There are four basic steps:

Identify the risk.

Take an inventory of the work our client teams have come to depend on us to carry.

Find a prospective champion.

Think about the people on our client team (or an appropriate client team, if we’re not embedded). Who among them has an affinity for some piece of the work we are doing?

Invite participation.

The next time the moment to do that chunk of work arises, invite your prospective champion to contribute to the effort, or even take the lead on it.

Sing some praises.

Highlight your champion’s competence to others, especially to authority figures on or around your team. The social and hierarchical support this creates will solidify your champion’s role as the owner of the work you were previously carrying.

Let’s run through some quick examples to help us picture how to grow the champions our clients deserve. 

Maybe we’re an engineer who has been filling a combination tech lead/individual contributor role on our project. If there’s an engineer who has been helping us write code, encourage them to take the lead on the next cycle of pull requests. If there’s a dev on a sister team to ours who has been curious about what we’ve been building, invite them to look at–or even commit some code to–the repository. If there’s a teammate who asks difficult but necessary questions about the work in one-on-ones, raise up their voice to others during a sprint planning ceremony. If a QA engineer is curious about how we determine our project requirements from sprint to sprint, include them on the next call with the stakeholders. 

In each of these moments, you can introduce your prospective champion to their teammates and higher-ups as a proactive technical leader, a skillful individual contributor, a valued critical voice, and an invested collaborator with the broader business. All of these are good, approachable opportunities for our client colleagues to get their hands dirty in the work or products they’ll inherit when we leave.

And voilà! Just like that, we’re sponsoring our client protégés into empowered champions of long term value. 

By creating small opportunities for our client teammates to shine in ways that come naturally to them or may even excite them, we give them the chance to grow professionally and fill a void we’d otherwise leave behind. This approach can apply for any kind of work that we’re carrying for our clients, whether that’s engineering work, product strategy, or design.

Tips for Successful Sponsorship Strategy

First, around these little invitations to actively participate in the work we can add another neat sponsoring flourish: talking our teammate-protégés up. Visibility matters in sponsorship. Giving a teammate the opportunity to do the work is just as important as making sure that others are aware that they are perfectly capable of crushing it. Any time we can raise up our new champion’s name in this way is a good thing (and the encouragement won’t hurt their confidence either).

Second, know that this is not something that should be saved for the last minute. Ideally, as we conceive of the plan to complete the project, some portion of our minds will already begin to turn on how we can leave our clients equipped to carry forward whatever we do for them. If we only think about the hand-off at the project’s end, we are left with no time to build the work into our teammates’ habits. This leaves us with the unpleasant prospect of a massive knowledge dump at the end of the project, and a higher risk of leaving our clients unprepared to go on without us.

And finally, a reminder of our role for our own sanity’s sake. As consultants, we do our absolute best to give solid advice, teach sustainable practices, and hopefully build some super cool things on the way. But at the end of the day, what we hope to impart cannot be enforced. It can only be embraced (or not) by the client. The same is true where sponsoring a new champion on our client team is concerned. While we can’t force champions into existence, the important thing is that we truly try to do right by our clients, our teammates, their consumers, and ourselves.

Being excellent consultants who truly care about our client’s needs, our goal should always be to work ourselves out of a job on any given project. 

Good documentation and automated tools help here, but the very best hope we have is wielding the magic of sponsorship to empower the actual humans who will become the project’s owners in our eventual absence. 

After all, we want the value we leave behind to last–not just lost in documentation, but imbued as a habit of excellence into the very humans who called upon our services in the first place.