Business Standard

Book Extract: Cultivating sponsors

Sponsors don't just magically appear. You have to seek them out, says a new book

Joanna Barsh & Johanne Lavoie 

Anyone who meets John Donahoe is impressed with his natural warmth and kindness; a (very) tall man, he is in no way intimidating! As we perched on high director's chairs for our interview, in front of a stunning Golden Gate Bridge view, I was rivetted by John's openness and honesty; he is the perfect teacher on cultivating sponsors.

A pattern of trust building
John sought out support early on: "I've been blessed by having a variety of sponsors and mentors throughout my career. They don't just magically appear, though. You have to seek them out and then cultivate them in an authentic way." His first mentor after college was Tom Tierney, his boss at Bain. John recalls, "I thought he walked on water. I thought he was god reincarnated." Tom's first lesson for John was to develop several relationships:

He told me, "John, you have to change your paradigm. Your definition of mentor was this swami-like Buddha figure who could endow you with the wisdom of life, liberty, and happiness. At times, it was intimidating." No one person had all the wisdom I was searching for. You need to learn a little from a lot of different people.

Tom invested early in John's development. John recalled, "He took an interest and spent time with me as a young up-and-comer. There was encouragement but he never glossed over the development message to just say, 'You're wonderful.'" John's leadership potential gave Tom the confidence to become his sponsor. Indeed, Tom recruited John back to Bain after business school. Down the road, when Tom was elected head of the firm, he appointed John (then a first-year partner) to head the San Francisco office. John recalled, "I followed in Tom's footsteps. When Tom completed his term as managing director of the firm, I was elected next." The two men remain close to this day; Tom serves as eBay's lead independent director and continues to coach John.

The scary part
At Bain, John had led from within, answering only to the partners. But eBay's public company environment required a more top-down leadership. John reflected, "As a leader, you set the tone. You have to make difficult decisions, which by their very nature can distance you from your team. Within my first few months at eBay, I made the difficult, but necessary, decision to reduce ten percent of our workforce. That was hard. You have to learn to harden your heart a little bit." Harder still was leading eBay's turnaround, which was being followed closely by the media:

In 2008, I remember hearing that an eBay seller had threatened one of our employees by posting a negative video about the company on YouTube. So I went to YouTube, searched for "eBay" and the first four pages of eBay results were all hate videos about me. It was absolutely sobering. The first video compared me to Hitler, and in an edited scene from the movie, Schindler's List, superimposed my name on a German guard's forehead and "eBay Sellers" on a Jewish prisoner the guard was shooting. The CEO "textbook" says you should have thick skin. But that really hurt.

John's word for that period? "Brutal." He reminisced: "I remember telling my oldest son that I thought I might have made a mistake joining eBay. He replied, 'Do you still believe in the things you believed about eBay when you joined?' 'Yes,' I said, 'I believe in a core purpose.' And he said, 'I thought you were in charge. Why don't you do something about it?' His words were like a necessary slap across the face. He held up a mirror for me. Here I was casting myself as the victim and letting circumstances beyond my control shape my internal personal narrative. I shifted to be the resolute leader I needed to be."

Like most of us, John has an internal critic who constantly presses him to do better, wearing him down. John confided, "Like most people, I want to be liked. If I have an interaction which I feel doesn't go well, my internal voice starts up. I've since learned to identify and dismiss it before it becomes debilitating. I tell myself: There's that negative voice. That's all it is. It's important to recognize your own patterns so you don't fall into a place where you're less effective." I was knocked for a loop. John appears so confident. "I can pull off the confident facade. I'm trained to have it," he told me. "We're all alike in some ways. It can be liberating to remember that the person across from you feels as insecure as you feel at times." Clearly, trusted connection - with mentors, sponsors - builds confidence.

Meet the authors
  • Director Emeritus at McKinsey & Company, Joanna Barsh is also the best-selling author of How Remarkable Women Lead and Centered Leadership
  • At McKinsey, Barsh served media, digital, consumer, direct marketing and retail clients for over 30 years, helping on strategic growth and performance transformation challenges
  • In 2008, Barsh launched the Centered Leadership project at McKinsey to help develop leaders in creating significant change in today’s complex world
  • Johanne Lavoie joined McKinsey & Company in 1993. Since 2001, she has focused on cultural transformation and leadership development as a senior expert in McKinsey’s global organisation practice. In December 2013, Lavoie was elected master expert, the highest expertise recognition in McKinsey
  • Lavoie holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a Bachelors degree in Electrical Engineering from McGill University. She hold several certifications in coaching and system development

Even CEOs need support
It can be intimidating to ask a leader for support, especially when you're a leader yourself. I was excited to learn what John did when he became eBay's CEO:

I had heard John Chambers speak, but I'd never met him one-on-one. After I became CEO, we got together, and he said to me, "John, it's great to meet you. Here's the deal. I'll give you an hour of my time each quarter to discuss your agenda-whatever you want. The executives at HP did the same thing for me on the condition that I return the favor to a new CEO down the road. That same condition holds for you. Being CEO is a lonely job. It only gets lonelier the longer you're in it and the more successful you get."

He continued, "So share what's on your mind. Bring me your worst problems - your worst nightmares. I promise they will never leave this room. You can feel safe, and I'll listen. Odds are, I'll throw out ten ideas. Some may be good or even great, but I won't know which ones. It's your job to figure that out! You've now got fifty-seven minutes."

In that first conversation, John Donahoe confided that he was scared about the pending layoff; he worried about damaging the culture and that people would hate him. John Chambers empathised and counseled, helping the younger John gain conviction.

How John wins mentors and sponsors
John still reaches out to other CEOs today. He advises, "Start with your peers. Go to the people you think you can learn from, who you see doing something well. If you focus on each person's strength and appreciate that, you'll learn faster and give back through your appreciation." He advises starting with a simple offer. John mused, "Some of the most powerful sentences you can say to anyone are, 'Can I get a little advice? Can I pick your brain? Would you be willing to have a cup of coffee with me a couple times a year and share your thoughts?' I've got a dozen CEOs who I've said that to and who I learn an enormous amount from. I haven't had anyone say no yet."

Re-printed with permission from Random House. Copyright@ 2014 by Joanna Barsh. All rights reserved

AUTHOR: Joanna Barsh & Johanne Lavoie
PUBLISHER: Random House
Price: $26
ISBN: 9780804138871

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First Published: Mon, April 28 2014. 00:14 IST