Don & Peggy & Jack & Liz: Lessons in Sponsorship from TV

My last piece on sponsorship highlighted the collegial and confident role that Daily Show showrunner and host John Stewart has played in elevating the profile of his protegees. Because of his high expectations and equally high level of faith in his correspondents, people like Stephen Colbert are moving into prime-time television roles, as well as challenging stereotypes about their work (if you haven’t watched the trailer for Steve Carell’s upcoming Foxcatcher, please do so after you finish this. He’s going to blow you away.) We see examples of this sort of sponsorship all the time. Males have a vested interest in helping one another succeed, and it comes naturally to them as a result of how they’re socialized. Comparatively, according to both Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Teri Bump,“[w]omen are over mentored and under sponsored.”

But women are starting to gain ground; a cottage industry is emerging with the sole purpose of creating spaces where women can empower, encourage, and boost one another. I’m cultivating one of those spaces, in fact, this summer in the Virtual Reciprocity Ring. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the support and care that this group of women has shown one another. I think I’m especially blown away by this phenomenon because much of my own mentorship has crossed gender lines. I’ve been incredibly lucky to gain and sustain the support of males in forging and adjusting my career path.

We’re led to believe that this sort of mentorship is rare. One of my favorite writers, organizational psychologist Adam Grant (of the incomparable Give and Take) has written a few times about the roles that men must play in creating a playing field accepting of women joining the game:

Why aren’t more men stepping up to support gender parity in the upper echelons of organizations? […] Although there’s little doubt that these reasons prevent some men from being better advocates for the women around them, a more subtle cause has been overlooked. Some men want to voice their support, but fear that no one will take them seriously because they lack a vested interest in the cause […] Across a series of studies, when men took action to promote women’s rights, people responded with surprise and anger. Both men and women were shocked and resentful toward the men: What business did they have speaking up for women?

Grant goes on to talk about the reception of his articles on the subject (one about the effect that women can have on male business practices, and another about how to prevent use of the term “bossy”), namely the indignation that has come from some readers asking what right he feels he has to speak on behalf of women. His response? As a man, it is true that I will never know what it is like to be a woman. As an organizational psychologist, though, I feel a responsibility to bring evidence to bear on dynamics of work life that affect all of us, not only half of us.”

It might surprise you, then, to learn that two television characters who have proven exemplary at this are 30 Rock‘s conservative and occasionally offensive John Francis (“Jack”) Donaghy, and Mad Men‘s womanizing, brooding lead, Donald Francis (“Don”) Draper…if that is his real name. Neither of these men are paragons of leadership, but they’ve done wonderful things to advance the profiles of their female protegees over seven seasons in high-rise New York offices.

But first, a primer on what I’m talking about when I speak of sponsorship. This graphic, from Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s “The Sponsor Effect,” details the expectations set forth for a sponsor-protegee relationship:

IMAGE CREDIT: Harvard Business Review

IMAGE CREDIT: Harvard Business Review

We’ll address Jack and his protegee, showrunner Liz Lemon, first.

Jack and Liz are brought together by the company when Jack arrives to oversee Liz’s department. Their relationship over seven seasons is comprised of, believe it or not, equal parts insults and insight. While Jack often makes fun of Liz for her taste in clothing, men, and the nature of the scripts that fuel her show, he also takes time to monitor her professional progress, identifying opportunities for exposure and advancement where possible. For every moment like the one in “Jack the Writer” where he publicly rebuffs her in the hallway when she is acting like the unwieldy members of her staff, there are others where he brings her to important tables (sometimes literally, as in “Gavin Volure”).

Jack uses chips on Liz’s behalf to take a sketch from her program, “Dealbreakers,” and guides her through the process of turning it into a book, and even a talk show pilot. That opportunity, too, was one where her perspective of what she could do was expanded. In making connections to senior leaders, he allows her to accompany him to events with high-profile guests, and even a Six Sigma retreat. He, in his own occasionally offensive way, is constantly advising Liz on her appearance in hopes of grooming her for greater professional success:

It should be noted that Jack does all of this while tending to a proverbial house that isn’t always in order. Through any number of romantic entanglements resulting in varying levels of success, and even through some professional setbacks that leave him questioning his purpose, Jack is able to participate in the development of a differently flawed individual whose achievements will reflect well on him. While Liz is in charge of the employees on her show, her biggest moments of advancement were driven in part by Jack’s intervention. And through it all, they created one of the best purely platonic and highly hilarious relationships on television.

IMAGE CREDIT: iVillage

On to Don and Peggy, a relationship that is far fresher in my mind after the events of the penultimate two episodes of Mad Men’s season 7A (spoilers ahead, for those not caught up. You’ve been warned and are not allowed to get mad if you read further.)

Don and Peggy’s paths first crossed in season one, when she was hired to serve as his secretary. Any hopes of a salacious relationship between Peggy and Don were dashed early, when her subtle gesture (more the result of what she deemed expected, than actual attraction) was rebuffed by the womanizing Don. Over the course of season one, Peggy’s ambitions to outgrow the confines of a secretarial desk do not go unnoticed by Don, and he assures she is promoted at the end of season one. Subsequent seasons show Peggy growing into her role as a copywriter and eventually copy chief, occasionally chafing Don with her hunger to be better and more prominent within the agency. They clash, at times loudly, but ultimately they return to one another as a source of inspiration and equilibrium. Some of the show’s most beautiful moments have been between them (think “The Suitcase,” where they stay late to create a Liston-Ali inspired luggage ad), and one of the most beautiful moments of this season featured him lauding her for the retooling of a frustrating pitch:

I have come close to tears just thinking about this moment no fewer than four times this week. IMAGE CREDIT: The Big Lead

Don positions himself as a sponsor early in his relationship with Peggy, advocating for her promotion and rearranging her duties to allow her to focus more on copywriting in Season 1. He has, in several pitches (most recently and significantly in last week’s “Waterloo”) made known her contributions to a project and praised her strong work to clients. And while some may doubt the usefulness of his career advice (typically offered in shouting matches, worded in ways such as “Stop asking for things!” and “That’s what the money is for!”), he does give some.

As with Jack, Don’s demons and struggles, both professional and personal affect his ability to be an ideal sponsor. Yet despite his challenges he has, Peggy does flourish. In fact, what is often the dream of a sponsor (albeit not for Don) does happen: in this season’s “The Strategy,” he has to report to her! And here we come to an extremely important point that must be mentioned when speaking of sponsorship: the protegees in question, Liz Lemon and Peggy Olson, are incredibly deserving of the attention bestowed upon them by their sponsors. Able to effectively dodge the assumptions, but not always the accusations, that male-female professional relationships must be accompanied by sexual congress, both Liz and Peggy have built platonic relationships with their sponsors. Both are hardworking women willing to make the sacrifices needed to find success.

While each may have seemed wildly different from her male sponsor, The Hollywood Reporter makes the argument that Jack and Liz may have been more similar than they seemed at first pass:

There was no good reason why liberal-minded Liz, whose bullshit detector is forever on high alert, should deign to associate with someone like Jack, a cutthroat corporate blowhard and apparent misogynist with deep-seeded mommy issues.  But deep down, Jack and Liz were more alike than they seemed: the two shared a strong sense of purpose; Alpha-level ambition; dark humor; an anxiety propelled by fear of failure and loss of control.

Vulture makes a similar point about Don and Peggy’s unlikely relationship:

Don and Peggy love each other, but they’re not people who are good at giving or accepting love. More important than their love, then, is simply their bond. These are people who are attached, for better or worse, for forever, in a relationship that’s not sexual, not parental, but not quite student-teacher, and not really mentor-mentee anymore. They’re not best friends. They’re not even always co-workers […] People come and go, even people you’re supposed to love who are supposed to love you. Peggy and Don are people with abandonment issues, and love does not preclude abandonment. Togetherness does. And Peggy and Don? Boy are they together.

We’ve been taught in many cases that mentors, sponsors, and professional influences are most effective when they look like us. “You can’t be what you can’t see” comes from somewhere, after all. But the pair of quotes above tell a different story: so long as some similarity exists, influential relationships can exist, evolve, and even thrive. Sponsorship across genders is, while rare and occasionally littered with gender-related struggles, possible. Don and Peggy and Jack and Liz are at once entirely fictional and very real examples of this.

So what lessons can you take away from these wildly different, consistently entertaining, and forward-thinking sponsor relationships?

For instance, I recently challenged an audit committee to consider a younger, but extremely talented, female executive instead of its first choice, a well-seasoned white man. They hesitated, but with reassurance from me that she was the best choice, they took my advice, and she has surpassed the committee’s expectations.

By recognizing that the work will get done when good people, no matter their look, are in power, we can start to create a more diverse and talented workforce. But that shift has to start with those currently in power; it will gain traction no other way.

  • Further, sponsorship should be that alone. As I alluded to earlier, one of the most significant obstacles to cross-gender sponsorship is the fear of implied impropriety. That is to say, when men reach out to help women, it’s assumed that a romantic or illicit relationship is part of the deal. I elected to highlight two relationships that help the females advance, and have been platonic for their duration. These are the relationships that we should aspire to cultivate. So while I can’t say “hey, don’t…”, I’ll defer to Emma Thompson’s warning to her husband Alan Rickman about his administrative assistant/would-be admirer in Love Actually: “Be careful there.”
  • Women, be so good they can’t ignore you. This inspirational adage came from the comedian Steve Martin, but it’s true for everyone. Male or female, attracting the attention and loyalty of a sponsor starts with being good. Really good. As Teri, a tireless advocate for sponsorship in higher education, has said on the subject, “Sponsoring outstanding professionals is one of the fastest ways to positively impact our field and our outcomes.” Working hard, producing consistent results, and being trustworthy are great examples. When seeking sponsorship, it is important to take the perspective of a person taking a chance on you. Should they? What are your strong suits? Where are your areas of liability? Be honest with yourself, and commit to putting more time and energy into elements of that latter area.
  • And when the time comes, don’t ignore them. There are countless statistics that discuss how women are hesitant to take on new duties or roles unless they’re 100% ready. But the opportunity to be sponsored, no matter who the offer comes from, is that rocketship that the controversial Sheryl Sandberg says you should just get on. To put it another way: we’re hesitant of ourselves because we see the full cut of our life story, and the final edit of everyone else’s. If that’s true, someone else is electing to sponsor you based on their viewing of your “highlight reel”! Trust their judgment, and let them work with you.

Ultimately, sponsorship of any type is possible when you are prepared to cultivate a presence that asks for it. Good work, attention to trust and capacity building in your work, and a desire to succeed are what it takes to attract the eye of a sponsor that can bring you to that rocketship to the moon…real (as in Mad Men), or imagined (like the space trip designed for Liz’s coworker Tracy).

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