Tonya Herring Chief Merchandising Officer, SVP Merchandising for Giant Food
Tonya as a Sponsoree
Have you been sponsored in your career?
Yes, I have been sponsored, but like most people, I didn't know I had a sponsor for the longest time. When a new executive joined from the outside the organization as my boss, we spent a few days together riding around to stores. Unbeknownst to me, he decided I was “definitely a candidate he wanted to place a bet on.” Even though he was three levels ahead of me, he started making sure that I was thought of, considered, and talked about in the room when it came to growth opportunities, people with high potential, people to do special projects, and all of that. As it turns out, many other people had thought the same of me, but everyone assumed someone else was sponsoring me, so my name wasn't coming up in the conversations.
To me, the lesson is to make sure someone in your own organization who can help influence your career, a sponsor, knows about your aspirations, where you want to go, and how far you want to take your career. I never talked about it except with my mentor, who did not work inside the same part of the company that I did. When my new boss began sponsoring me, I started getting talked about. From that moment on, my career moved really fast.
When you realized you were being talked about – sponsored – did that change your perspective or approach at all?
Before I knew I was sponsored, I would sit quietly, I would listen, and I would learn when I was in meetings with leaders from other parts of the organization. Once I understood I was being sponsored, I would engage. I would offer. Even if I made a mistake, I participated instead of taking the approach of listening and learning before engaging.
I also recognized that I was being invited to more leadership meetings. Leaders began knocking on the door or swinging by my office, saying, "Hey we were thinking about…" or "Hey we're doing this but it's not quite having the effect that we wanted." I noticed the change in engagement from this higher leadership level. They started seeking me out rather than me just being a participant in a meeting.
Did your sponsor eventually tell you that he was formally sponsoring you?
When my sponsor started, I was a Director. Then I was promoted to a Group Director. And the day after I was promoted once again to VP, he said, "I've been sponsoring you this whole time." And he still is to this day.
Do you feel if that didn't happen that you would've been given those opportunities?
No, definitely not. I would not have represented myself the same. When I was told I was being sponsored, it was like an on switch for my confidence and my willingness to take a risk, instead of being in a listen and learn mode all the time. In my perspective, that's what women do; we sit and learn until we think we're an expert, then we'll talk.
Tonya as a Sponsor
How do you select the people you sponsor? Can you share an example?
Both times I've sponsored someone, it started as a mentor relationship. The first relationship came about as she approached me and asked me to be her mentor. It took me about 20 seconds to realize how extremely talented she was, far beyond her internal audit position, which was really limiting her. We spoke about how she could get into the merchandising side of the organization because a lot of her strongest skills were transferable to merchandising. That's the moment I decided to sponsor her because moving her from internal audit to merchandising was going to require someone to sponsor her, talk about her in the big room, and advocate for her when we were talking about talent.
As soon as I started bringing up her name, everyone agreed, "Oh my gosh, you're right. She is great." The only question was, “Are her skill sets truly transferable?” I invited her to a few merchandiser meetings so she could see if there was anything she was interested in or passionate about. About the third meeting, I asked her, "What do you think about what you're hearing?” It gave her the opening to show her value, and she did.
When we had an opening for a Director in merchandising, she and I talked about making a lateral move. I moved laterally five times in my career, and without those lateral moves, I would never be where I am today. Then, I had to push to get her in the interview pool. As her sponsor, I put my reputation on the line to get her the interview. She blew everyone away and was the candidate of choice even though she had no merchandising experience.
How did you make sure you put her in a position to succeed in this new role?
We created an onboarding plan. I had her spend time outside of the area she was going to lead so that she could see how others did it. She had conversations with all the other people in the same position as her. We spent about four months onboarding before she actually sat in the seat and took over the responsibilities.
In your organization, do you talk about sponsorship or who you are sponsoring?
At my previous company, it was very much talked about. In my current company, it is up to each leader. We start mentoring and sponsorship relationships on our own, and discuss it amongst our peers. I believe that, to be effective, sponsorship has to be top of mind. It has to be led. It doesn't just happen.
When you decide to sponsor someone, do you tell them? What does the initial conversation look like?
From my own experience, I wish I had known sooner that I was being sponsored. That's why I take the approach to ask the individual up front, “Do you know the difference between sponsorship and mentorship?” We talk about the difference. Then, I say, “I would like to flip our relationship to a sponsor relationship.” And I tell them the reasons why. Both of my sponsorees have asked, “So what does that mean that I have to do?” And my advice to them was, “Don't do anything different than you're doing today. Bring me questions, concerns, and ask for feedback. The only thing that you need to do is to be cognizant when you're in meetings that you potentially could be on stage and don't know it.” I recommend they treat every meeting like they are on stage. Outside of that, I don’t ask them to do anything different, but I do tell them that I’m sponsoring them.
How do you know where your sponsorees want to go so that you can help them get there?
I choose to have them define where they want to go and what they want to do first. I would hate to be kind of pushing someone towards something they're not passionate about because they'll never be at their best.
For the two ladies that you have sponsored, what benefits did you receive as a sponsor (other than the joy of watching them succeed)?
That is part of the benefit of choosing someone to sponsor. Part of it is watching them grow, but another benefit is the information they bring to you. One of my sponsorees came to me once and said, “I really think that leadership, all of you guys, should be looking at this part of the organization. Maybe we need to do it differently, and here's some examples of why, and here's what I'm thinking.” As a result of that conversation, we determined where we need to tweak and fine tune things. Without her suggestion, we wouldn't have known about it.
Another time, my other sponsoree came to me and said, “I was watching this interaction with you, I realized it's the first time I’ve ever seen you visibly frustrated. How do you normally hide it?” She was asking it from a place of learning, but the lesson to me was that people are really watching me. I need to be aware of letting my frustration show.
I am a firm believer that whether you're a sponsee or a sponsor, you learn and get something out of the relationship. Both times the fact that I identified a great talent, people thought I was brilliant. Really, all I did was became a sponsor when someone asked me to be a mentor, and through sponsoring, I advocated for them in meetings and behind closed doors with other leaders.
Are there any other ways that you advocate for your sponsorees?
If there is a special assignment or a short-term project coming up, I always push for my sponsorees to attend and come back and report on what they found. Because again, it's about getting them exposure to people they don't work with day in and day out.
How often do you meet with your sponsorees? What do you discuss with them?
I think a cadence is critical. Whether it be monthly or bi-weekly, it must be scheduled. Without a schedule, it becomes something that you move off of your calendar week over week over week. Just as critical is the agenda. Without an agenda, it becomes a one-hour venting session.
Do you have any final thoughts or remaining advice?
The final thing I’d like to leave you with is this. I think in being a sponsor, you get just as much out of the relationship and out of the learnings as a sponsoree. The main person I've been talking about here is my sponsoree, Rebecca. During our first formal sponsorship meeting, we were talking about where she wanted to go with her career, but I learned so much about why internal audit is so critical to a company. Since I've only ever been on the end of an audit, I didn’t fully understand the importance. It's one of those things where you think, “Great, I'm getting audited. Great, I didn't pass.” Inherently, you know it is important to the company, but understanding it from an auditor's point of view was a huge learning. Hearing how passionate she was about making sure the company never gets in trouble was very eye-opening for me. I understood it before, but now I look at audits and internal audits completely differently than I ever had before.
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