Sponsorship-based people management

I’ve been working with multiple ideas related to management in software engineering. From simple tyranny (here is what I want you to do), through coaching (what do you think I’d like you to do), then mentoring (here is what I believe what is important for you to do) and finally to servant manager (here is what I’d like you to consider to do and let me know). All of them have their own benefits. They also fail to appreciate a few interesting factors.

Factor one is: we usually expect a person to follow a certain set of behaviours. The behaviours usually set in a very subjective factor, in many cases not crafted well to support individuality. As in here is what we (the world; HR) expect from you, but your insight on how you fit to it, is of lesser value. This crashes strongly with the need of self to promote – … and here is what I can offer, which I feel is valuable to both me and you.

Factor two is: the roles are tagged against very specific and narrow organizational goals. Examples – software engineer will write code, manager will manage and tester will test. Anything what would be coming from the individual self is deemed not important (as in developer can just go and talk, not writing a single line of code for weeks, but still enabling others). The right of the self to interpret the goals is rejected.

I believe these 2 factors are some of the most common causes of people jumping ships and looking for other jobs. Especially in software engineering, where individuality and uniqueness have a much higher value to the person than organizational expectations.

The principle and processes of sponsorship are the cornerstone of self-relations. The word “sponsorship” comes from the Latin spons, meaning, “to pledge solemnly”. So sponsorship is a vow to help a person (including one’s self) use each and every event and experience to awaken to the goodness and gifts of the self, the world, and the connections between the two. Self-relations suggests that experiences that come into a person’s life are not yet fully human; they have no human value until a person is able to “sponsor them”. Via sponsorship, experiences and behaviors that are problematic may be realized as resources and gifts. In this way, what had been framed and experienced as a problem is recognized as a “solution”.

Dr Stephen Gilligan


The process of sponsorship approaches this from a different perspective.

Sponsor-manager is neither just a boss or just an advocate for the person. In this respect he is the person that pledges solemnly that they would help the person to humanize (or in other words grow) their ideas and solutions, even when they might be against the current organizational culture. In most cases the problem identified is me vs what the world expects. All the manager needs to do is starting asking – yes, and?

A good example of the sponsorship process is an old movie. Bicentennial Man with Robin Williams. It is in fact based on a short novel by Isaac Asimov – The Positronic Man (which I also encourage you to read). The owner of the robot plays the sponsor role here. We start from a position, where the robot appreciates he is different, but has no clue what to do with it. It is the humanization or realization of the value of these differences, pushes the robot on a path to further discovery and providing value to the world. All happens against the rules he was originally created with (just a household appliance) and his initial place in the world. What is also interesting? The journey of the owner. He goes from tyrant, through coach to mentor, then servant and finally at the end just another person in the robots world. This proves a problem can be the first indicator and a step towards a solution. In fact it is a part of it (as in robots can’t be human, stimulating the whole process).

This expands well into situations at a workplace. As managers we are often faced with a dilemma. How to conform to the wider organizational goals, while still sponsoring the uniqueness and individuality of our direct reports.

Out of my favourite sports coaches, Phil Jackson and Sir Alex Fergusson understood this very well. They are in the group of a very few team sports coaches, who stayed with a team for multiple years without a sack and succeeded. They understood one thing for sure. A team is not just about scoring and profiting from it. The goal of a good manager is not achieved just by following a script or just by focusing on the performance metrics. Building a successful team takes time. It requires both focusing on the uniqueness of the individual team members, as well as the expectations of the world. Both.

In software engineering it might be wrongly seen that developers are only responsible for coding the solution. Or moving tickets on the board. In most places, that is how a random person would classify a software engineer. They might be often seen as performing only if everything is provided within budget, on time and with reasonable quality. The truth is very much far from it.

What we’re going to find is that it’s often very easy to sponsor the gift – to give it space, to allow it to grow. The greater challenge is often to sponsor the wound, the “demon,” or the shadow. We don’t want to sponsor it – we want to get rid of it, we want to cure it, we want to control it, we want to fight it. But true healing and transformation come from being able to sponsor the wound, sponsor the demon, sponsor the shadow. That

Dr Stephen GilliganThe Hero’s Journey: A Voyage of Self Discovery


In the movie about robots, the demon/shadow part was about not really being human. For engineers (from my practical experience), it is mostly cutting their creative spirit to only fit into a role of code-monkey, ticket-pusher and HR/KPI-pleaser.

Many organizations which provide more autonomy to engineers flourish. They might not know it, but all they do is sponsor the individuality and uniqueness of each engineer. They do this by giving them autonomy. Engineers are smart. They know the company is about making profits and growth. In many cases, will start contributing to that goal, as long as nobody imposes a road how to get there on them. Managers are in this hard position here. They need to sponsor both the organization and the individual engineers to meet their goals.

Sponsoring the organization is a very much wider topic and I won’t be able to provide my insight on how this could be done in this article. Sponsoring the individual starts from asking a question – how would you like your role to look like? Followed by a question – and what is the organization expecting from you today? This will usually result in conflict. The problem. The thing to heal. The demon and shadow we need to learn to embrace and sponsor as managers.

It is tempting to apply a tyrant approach here, or tyrant-coach, where we ask open questions, but actually expect a specific outcome. The hard part of sponsorship is that you don’t know what that outcome might be. You just trust the engineer they will arrive at outcomes that support the organization (world). You also account for the fact they might fail multiple times before getting there. Or that they will just maliciously start sabotaging everything. This is fine in the long run. The only approach is observation and corrections over time. Effective sponsorship takes a lot of time. And delays the immediate results you might be hoping for.

source: https://us.clipdealer.com/video/media/183082

The plan is I will be able to get more into the effective sponsorship examples in the future. To me personally, the role of a sponsor-manager breaks down to the following basic skillset:

  • centering/opening attention
  • deep listening/proper naming
  • being touched by/touching
  • challenging/accepting
  • connecting with resources and traditions
  • developing multiple frames/practicing behavioral skills
  • cultivating fierceness, tenderness, and playfulness

Also sometimes being the annoying, hardliner prick.

All the while holding both organizational value and individual value on the same level. Both being as much important, while following the route of including and extending, rather than just correcting, rejecting or manipulating outcomes to reach the expected goal.

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