Allison Cheston, Career Connector


Career Connector Blog

Wisdom from Wall Street


On May 11th I attended the second annual Wall Street Women’s Forum, a great event put on by RegentAtlantic Capital’s Jane Newton. It’s a speaker series bringing together 100 senior women who work on and around Wall Street, to help them navigate their careers while networking with one another.

The theme this year was Claiming Your Seat at the Table, and the keynote speaker was Carla Harris, Managing Director at Morgan Stanley and author of the book “Expect to Win”.

Harris was an incredibly dynamic speaker, but what struck me most was how many specific words of wisdom she shared that could benefit professionals of all stripes—not just senior women bankers. People early in their careers would be lucky to learn some of these tools of the trade early on, to help take some of the guesswork out of building a successful career. I highly recommend the book, and I’m going to share some of its content in these pages.

Who’s going to help you get where you want to go in your career? At last year’s meeting, Heidi Miller of JPMorgan Chase discussed the importance of mentors and sponsors in one’s career, and this year Harris picked up on that theme in more detail.

What is a Mentor?

Harris describes a mentor as someone you tell all to: the triumphs, mistakes, trials and tribulations—your real deal. Your mentor must know you very well, well enough to provide tailored advice. He or she does not need to be in your organization, but he must understand your context.

There is a great deal written about mentors, and Gen Y’s know how important it is to find a mentor as early as possible. But most are unfamiliar with the term “sponsor”.

Harris’s take is that you can last a long time in your career without a mentor, but you won’t be able to ascend in your career without a sponsor.

What is a Sponsor?

A sponsor has a seat at the table, which means he is senior enough to argue on your behalf “behind closed doors”. You should not tell him the good, the bad and the ugly; tell him only the good. He is someone you want to impress. He must believe in you enough for him to spend his precious political capital on you. As Harris sees it, the sponsor relationship is the most critical for your career.

The concept of sponsorship is more common in corporate settings where the hierarchy is well-established. But the concept of sponsorship can arguably take place in any type of organization.

How to find yourself a sponsor? Ask. And if the answer is no the most important thing is to understand why…and then move on. Harris says there are three possible reasons why a potential sponsor will turn you down:

  1. He may not know you well enough

  2. He may not have the clout you think he does, but he doesn’t want to admit it

  3. He may not like you

As she says, if you ask someone to be your sponsor and they say no, don’t lose confidence. Instead, your response should be “Next!”

Harris also counsels that early in your career your mentor and sponsor can be the same person, but later you may want to diversify. As you get more senior in your career, it’s ideal to have two or three sponsors in order to cover all your bases.