Making Yourself a High-ROI Investment for Advocates

Renee Dye, PhD, Associate Professor, Goizueta Business School, Emory University

In my previous blog post, I made the case that your odds for career success are dramatically increased if you cultivate one or more advocates.  This post will focus on how you can prevail in your efforts to attract effective advocates. 

Perhaps you’ve had the stomach-dropping experience at work of watching a colleague engage in schmoozing that makes you think they’re plugged into the organizational network in a way that you’ll never be able to achieve.  It may appear that access to inside jokes and outside social events are the hallmarks of attainment when it comes to advocacy cultivation.  And while social relationships sometimes go hand-in-hand with advocacy, I want to give you a different, more empowering way to think about the relationship you’ll have with a potential advocate.  This re-framing is especially potent for individuals who have fallen into the “only people like me will advocate for me” or the “advocacy is about friendship” mindsets.  

Here’s the secret to reworking your mental model: Your relationship with your advocate should be first and foremost a mutually beneficial ongoing series of transactions, with clear give and take on both sides.  That advice may feel jarring and coldly calculating, but it makes you think about what you have to offer – not just what other people can do for you.  Think of it as your AVP: your Advocacy Value Proposition.  No high-performing business expects customers to invest in a product or service that doesn’t deliver a robust value proposition.  Similarly, you shouldn’t expect a high-ranking leader within your organization to invest in you and your career development without presenting to them a compelling value proposition.  There are dozens, or hundreds, or even thousands of employees that a senior leader could potentially advocate for within their organization; so what can you do to develop and communicate your AVP so that you stand out to them and enlist them in your cause? 

Advocacy carries its own risks; if a protegee fails, then their advocate’s status within an organization is weakened; conversely, when a protegee succeeds, an advocate’s reputation is strengthened within an organization.  When I have personally gone to bat for an individual in all three of my career incarnations – consultant, senior leader, and academic – only to be subsequently disappointed by that protegee’s performance, I have quietly yet definitively withdrawn my support.  Leaders everywhere do the same.  Relationship and reputational capital are precious resources, which take decades to amass and years to replenish if squandered.

You have to convince an advocate that you offer a higher-potential, lower-risk return on their investment in you than other candidates.  Below are five key actionable levers that are entirely within your control to pull to your advantage.

  • Deliver exceptional results.  No excuses, no compromises.  Your AVP will never get off the ground if you don’t produce truly excellent work that impresses and delights your managers.  While excellent work is not in and of itself sufficient to cultivate advocacy, it is absolutely necessary.  No advocate is going to put their reputation on the line on behalf of an employee who produces shoddy work that fails to have organizational impact.  There is not a single student or employee for whom I will fall on my sword unless they have produced distinctive, insightful work for me; and the students who have completed truly exemplary projects have the right to earn my advocacy.  One of the most comprehensive surveys on advocacy (or “sponsorship,” as the authors term it, finds that “[t]he most successful protégés…recognize that sponsorship must be earned with performance and loyalty—not just once but continually (Hewlett, Marshall, and Sherbin, “The Relationship You Need to Get Right,” HBR Oct 2011)
  • Signal your dedication and engagement every chance you get.  Too many folks labor under the false belief that if they just keep their heads down and produce good work, rewards will invariably follow.  That may have been true in school, but it is just not true in organizations.  In my experience, women more often fall prey to this fallacy.  If you keep your door closed and focus just on your work, you’re going to be at a disadvantage to others who make themselves more highly visible.  And I don’t mean working late nights or needing to socialize regularly, as this example shows: a manager at an advertising agency had two high-performing employees, a woman and a man, who both did excellent work.  The woman kept to herself most of the time, while the man was in her doorway several times a week offering insights and suggestions on the business.  When the manager had one promotion opportunity to award, she felt like she had not choice other than to give it to the man, who demonstrated higher engagement with his career.
  • Create a relationship of reciprocity.  Find a way to help make the individual you want to cultivate as an advocate successful.  You may need to be creative, and sometimes that will mean pitching in on a project that is unrelated to your job.  Back when Covid hit in the spring of 2020 and schools shut down, my special needs son was struggling with virtual education.  One of my students reached out to me to inquire whether his wife, who had been furloughed from her job as therapist, could be helpful as a teacher’s aid to my son (for pay, to be clear.)  She worked with our family for three months and was an absolute Godsend.  That same student also offered to work with me in developing gorgeous Tableau graphics for my blog posts (again, for pay).  While not directly related to the core professor/student dynamic, these ancillary activities strengthened our relationship and catalyzed me (unbeknownst to him!) to proactively lobby for him with a friend who is a partner at one of the top consulting firms, where he now has an Associate role. 
  • Communicate your career aspirations clearly and with conviction.  It’s hard for people to help you along in your career journey if they don’t know where you want to go.  While saying that you want to be challenged and to continue progressing in your career is laudable, it’s not nearly as actionable as saying that you want to be a Regional Sales Manager or Major Account Executive or Partner within five years.  Formulating a credible, ambitious set of career goals demonstrates maturity, initiative, and ownership – all traits that advocates like to see.  And it clarifies and simplifies for them when, where, and how they can activate their sponsorship to accelerate your career propulsion.
  • Embrace opportunities and mine them for every possible learning and development.  While it’s important to communicate where you want to go, being inflexible in how you achieve your goals makes it harder for people to help you.  Most senior leaders have had a wide array of experiences in different roles and geographies by the time they make it to the C-Suite.  Your advocate may put your forward for a role that you hadn’t imagined was next in your flight path.  Take time to understand how it will strengthen you as a leader – and that any assignment is a temporary step in a longer journey to success – and take it on with alacrity and enthusiasm.  Americans have grown more sedentary not just in their activity levels but in their residency patterns: “Only 9.8 percent of residents in the U.S. changed their residences in 2018, down from 20 percent in 1985…. It’s the lowest rate since 1947 (Agovino, “Americans Aren’t Moving.”  Feb 2020).  While Covid and younger generations are going to be wild cards in their longer-term employment effects, we do know that 84 percent of Millennials are willing to relocate for a job and 82 percent believe they will be required to relocate if they want to advance their careers.  In addition to geographic relocation, you should also be willing to move to another function.  High-performing Executive Team members possess competency in every area of the business; how else can you help establish strategic frameworks and make resource allocation decisions beyond your specific domain in the C-Suite?
  • Never lose an opportunity to tell potential advocates the difference they’re making in your life.  While reciprocity is always the best way to demonstrate gratitude, don’t overlook any opportunity to express your gratitude to a current or potential advocate.  We hear a lot about “expressing gratitude” in our society today, and I am a steadfast proponent for the transformative power of identifying and appreciating the many aspects of our lives in which we are blessed.  I fear, however, that many of these exercises in gratitude are more internally than externally voiced these days.  People love to hear that they are making a difference in your life – and appreciate your taking the time to write a thoughtful note or email to tell them how they’ve meaningfully inspired, trained, or supported you.  Your communications need to be specific and articulate to be credible and effective – and making them so will force you to reflect deeply on how someone has positively altered your life.

I can’t promise that pulling the levers described above will ensure the successful cultivation of a powerful and passionate advocate, but I can promise that doing so will increase your odds dramatically.  Develop an acute understanding and crisp articulation of your Advocacy Value Proposition, identify potential advocates, and begin to take specific actions to help you cultivate them.  Sitting back and waiting to be “assigned” a mentor or advocate puts you behind more proactive employees, and each day you lag behind translates into (1) a lower likelihood of achieving your ultimate career aspirations; (2) a longer timeline to achieving your aspirations; and (3) lost income due to lower compensation levels.

What are you waiting for?  If you’re waiting for the dust on hybrid and remote work to settle, I strongly encourage you to read my next blog posting on Advocacy in the Age of Remote Work.

Works cited

Hewlett, Marshall, and Sherbin, “The Relationship You Need to Get Right,” HBR Oct 2011)

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