How to cultivate your champions
Plus a repeat appearance of my Strategic Network graphics, which are a good reminder that I am NOT skilled in graphic design.
Hello and welcome to Academia Made Easier. I am so glad that you are here.
Whenever I write about networking, I can sense your mental “ugh”. I bet you did it right now. You can’t help it. Let me show you:
See, you did it again! You thought “ugh”! (Or was that just me?)
Networking – as a verb – is a word covered in ick. It feels transactional, artificial, and uncomfortable. Hating networking makes sense because networking, as an activity, can in fact be transactional, artificial, and uncomfortable. Ugh.
But having an actual network is pretty awesome. People in your network can open doors for you. They can tell you about opportunities. They can share resources with you. And – importantly – they can help advance your career when you aren’t even present, without your knowledge that they are even doing so. They can be your champion.
While it may be nice to think that people shouldn’t need champions and should just be able to get ahead on their merit, the world often doesn’t work that way. As Kerry Ann Rocquemore writes, “most of us want to believe that our work will speak for itself. In reality, the quality and importance of your scholarship will be interpreted by others, often in conversations that occur while you’re not around.” Given this, it is nice to have a champion. Scratch that. It is nice to have many champions.
I want that for you.
And that’s what today’s small thing to try immediately is all about.
One Small Thing to Try Immediately: Think strategically about cultivating your champions
Careers are funny. Sometimes it is possible to clearly point to particular people who really mattered to one’s journey: that teacher who believed in you in high school, the professor who inspired you, the mentorship team that gave you sound advice and the occasional pep talk.
And then there are other people who mattered to your journey that you don’t even know about. They put your name forward in rooms you were unaware of and get your name considered for opportunities you never would have heard of if it wasn’t for them. They add you onto lists, pass your name along, speak up on your behalf.
People who write about careers often refer to these behind-the-scenes helpers as sponsors. To quote Rocquemore again, “sponsors are people who have power and influence and use it on your behalf to shape the story about who you are (and the importance of your work) behind closed doors when people are talking about you and you’re not there.”
When I think about the importance of sponsors in career success, I get uneasy. People often have a natural affinity toward people who remind them of themselves. When the people with influence are overwhelmingly from particular subsets of groups (👋academia!), the result can be racial, gender, ableist, neurotypical, and other biases (👋academia!). The “bright young scholar” who “reminds me of myself when I was at that career stage” ends up with people championing their successes. The other scholars struggle to get on the radar.
You deserve to be on the radar, even if you don’t remind many (or any) people of themselves at your career stage. And here are some suggestions to achieve this … through (I hate to say it) networking. (Ugh.)
1. Understand why people in positions of influence champion others. People in positions of influence often champion other people because they have a problem to solve. They need qualified people to put forward for this particular opportunity or to nominate for that particular award. They have important committees that they need to populate, exciting positions that they need to fill, grant funds that need to be allocated. To be championed by people in positions of influence, it helps if you and/or your work are seen as a solution to their problem. Consider what problems you would like to solve for people in positions of influence.
2. Consider who might be in a position to be a champion for you and your work. I have written before about your need for a strategic network. (See: “How to strategically build your network when you despise networking” and “How to network at academic conferences’.) Your strategic network should include people in your institution, in your discipline, and in whatever external area matters to your career. (As a political scientist who runs a public policy school, for me this is people working in government.) Within each of these realms, give thought to who might be in a position of influence to champion your work. These individuals might be influential because of their position, their reputation, or their networks. Chances are a few people are coming to mind for you. Write those names down.
3. Identify ways to get onto the radar of the people who might be in a position to be a champion for you and your work. People with influence can’t champion you and your work if they don’t know that you exist. You need to move them from the “no ties” zone of your strategic network to the “weak ties” zone. How? Inger Mewburn and Simon Clews’ Be Visible Or Vanish: Engage, Influence and Ensure Your Research Has Impact identifies many ways to make an impression – be it in a poster presentation, a keynote talk, or an email – that can serve as the foundation for building a weak tie relationship. In addition to their ideas, consider how you can build your network through your service commitments or by setting up individual meetings. Strategizing on how to make these connections is more likely to be successful than just waiting for serendipitous introductions.
4. Don’t be an asshole. As you aim to get onto people’s radar, remember that your goal is to be positively memorable. You want people to be impressed with your work and with you as a person. Rocquemore writes, “People sponsor those they like and sit in silence when someone they don’t like is being taken down.” If you come across as disrespectful, arrogant, or lazy, people will be less likely to champion you – even if they like your work. Worse still, they might become critics – people of influence who speak against you and your work. You definitely don’t need that.
5. Be mindful about who you are championing. At some point, if not already, you will be in the position to be a champion for your students, your colleagues, or others. When you are, be aware of your own potential biases and blind spots. Are the students you put forward for opportunities essentially “mini-me”s in some way? Are the names you pass along predominantly you-substitutes? If so, aim to look around more broadly and expand your networks. Chances are good that some excellent people who aren’t on your radar yet could use a champion.
Until next time…
I managed to write a whole newsletter repeatedly using the word “champion” without a single reference to Queen’s “We Are The Champions.” This is a shame, as Freddie Mercury was a talented genius and deserves a shout-out. 😀
Stay well, my colleagues.
P.S. You read all the way to the bottom! I love that about you. If you have a spare moment, please comment and let me know your secrets to building your strategic network. Or your favourite Queen song. Or both. I’d love to hear from you!
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