SARAH WILLIAMSON

Sarah with her husband and two little girls. 

Sarah with her husband and two little girls. 

SARAH WILLIAMSON
on sponsorship, being liked, and leaning in

 

It’s always a little awkward to cold-call a complete stranger and ask them to share all their wisdom on career development with you over coffee.

Lucky for me, Sarah is exactly what you hope for – she is warm, accomplished, and incredibly generous.

She has progressed admirably through the ranks of Medtronic, a global leader in medical technology and services, where she currently serves as the Director of Strategy and Business Development for Patient Monitoring. In addition to her heavy-duty director role at Medtronic, she is also a hands-on mom to two little girls, an avid runner, and an advocate for inclusion and diversity. With all that on her plate, I was grateful that she set aside an hour on her calendar to get coffee and chat with me. (See? Super generous.)

I rarely come into these conversations with a strong idea of what I want to get out of them. I do a little research on LinkedIn and learn what I can about the companies that they work for. I ask questions that relate to what I know about them and topics that I’m interested in, but I often find that when I ask a successful person about their career and let the conversation unfold organically, the insights and takeaways tend to find me. I’m attuned to listening for the key learnings, and I always walk away enriched.

Below, you’ll find what stuck out to me from my conversation with Sarah.

 

TAKEAWAYS

1. SPONSORSHIP IS CRITICAL

A few years ago, Sarah moved into a position at Medtronic where she really excelled. She was killing it. She was an expert on her subject matter and got to travel all over the world training others and guiding their strategy and implementation. Her boss noticed her exceptional work and went to bat for her, sponsoring her for a big promotion.  

While her work spoke for itself, she was also fortunate to have a boss that saw the value she brought to the company. Because of his sponsorship, she was able to move from that individual contributor role directly into a director position – an extraordinary feat in a company as large and structured as Medtronic.

Given the importance of sponsorship in Sarah’s story, it feels worth taking a quick pause to talk about the difference between sponsorship and mentorship. Through this personal project of reaching out to accomplished women and asking them to share their insights with me, I have been lucky to collect a bunch of badass mentors that have been very generous with their rich wisdom. Their input has changed the way that I think about my career and personal development. A handful have even gone on to sponsor me in big and little ways.

The key difference between mentorship and sponsorship is that mentors advise, while sponsors put their support for you into action.

I believe that the key to finding someone to put their neck out for you requires two things: they need to know you and they need to believe in what you can do. That means doing really good work and investing in building relationships. In Sarah’s case, she did her part to do outstanding work and build trust with her boss. Because of this, he was able to see her strong work track record and believe in her enough to put the weight of his position and influence behind moving her into a more senior role.

In Sarah’s case, it was her boss that sponsored her. You won’t always be lucky enough to have a direct supervisor fight for you. But here’s the thing, sponsors come in all shapes and sizes and roles. You don’t know now who might be able to flex a little in your favor down the road. You’d do well to make sure you’re fostering relationships in your life and network.

 

2. BEING RESPECTED > BEING LIKED

Managing the desire to be liked is a topic that I’ve been trying to sort out for a while. Although it’s a very human feeling to want to be liked, it’s a complicated topic for women in business. Sheryl Sandberg shined a light on the double bind that women face in her 2013 book Lean In. She talks about the fact that if women want to be successful in business, we can’t simply be competent, we must also be likeable. When women act assertively or competitively, they are deviating from the social norms that they are expected to adhere to and then they get punished for not being gentle, nurturing, or collaborative enough. Men don’t face the same consequences when their peers and subordinates don’t see them as warm and friendly. The stakes are high for women in business. (It’s not fair...I know.)  

With this in mind, I asked Sarah about her thoughts on battling the desire to be liked. Her answer was surprisingly profound for its simplicity:

Being liked is different than being respected.”

This was the answer that I didn’t know I was looking for!

It’s impossible to make everyone happy all the time, especially when you’re trying to make sh!t happen. But, Sarah opened my mind to consider that being liked may be the wrong target. This revelation reminded me of a conversation I had with the CEO of Oregon Food Bank, Susannah Morgan, who always asks herself and her team “What is this in service of?”. It’s a unifying question that gets people outside of their own biases, agendas, and egos and clarifies that the decisions being made should be in service of a shared mission.

I think we can use the same approach for our personal career development, with respect serving as the guide. Perhaps a better question for this case is, “What is my motivation?”. When the hustle for others’ approval glares its ugly head, we can use the lens of maintaining the respect of those that deserve it to help evaluate options and make the best decision…even when it isn’t popular or easy.

(Of course, this won’t make the pain when others don’t like us sting any less, but perhaps it can help us sleep a little better at night.)

 

3. THERE ARE TIMES WHEN IT’S OKAY TO NOT “LEAN IN”

As Sarah was recounting the steps she had taken in her career for me, there was a little moment that stuck out to me. There was a time in her career when she chose not to “lean in”. She had done impressive work as a 20-something, returned for her MBA, and then held a director position directly out of grad school. She started building a family and with the arrival of her second child, her life was full. While she still made a strong contribution at work, she took her foot off the throttle a bit realizing that it wasn’t the right time to be asking to be assigned to extra, challenging projects or take on loads more responsibility. When life settled down some, she leaned back in and moved on to greater challenges.

This stuck out to me because ever since Lean In, business women have been focusing on their ambitions and challenging each other to take on more responsibility at work. This societal change in discourse around gender and business makes it a really exciting and hopeful time for women to expand their roles and responsibilities at work.

It’s also a heavy lift.

Many of the high-achieving women I know have felt charged with the task of leaning in, not just for our own career advancement, but also to support the greater community of women in the workplace. Sarah shows us that we can take a more nuanced approach to our career development and see it in the context of our whole lives.

There will be times in our lives when the leaning can (or should) be in another direction. A lot of us ambitious women gain a lot of meaning and personal satisfaction from the work that we do. It’s so easy for that to consume all of our energy. It’s important to recognize that there may be times in my life when our families or friends or personal development require us to pull back a bit and just manage what we have currently on our plates, resisting the pressure to reach for the next big challenge.

We need give ourselves permission to do that. Leaning in will be there for us when we want to get back to it.   

BONUS: VIDEO

Sarah was chosen by CU - Boulder to highlight how incredible the graduates of the Leeds School of Business are. See her in action, kicking butt at work and home.