Building Your Workplace Advocate Army

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What is a workplace advocate? “Mentors” and “sponsors” are common terms in conversations about advancing in your career, but having an advocate or two is another vital part of your professional journey that you shouldn’t neglect. Emma Sharma, Chief Administrative Officer, General Counsel and Company Secretary of Valiant Integrated Services and 4word Advisory Board member, talks about how to not only cultivate advocates for yourself but how to, in turn, reciprocate and be an effective advocate for others.

Tell us a little about yourself!

I’m a Jesus-following wife, mom, friend, business executive and founder in the very unglamorous government contracting industry and am passionate about seeing people raised into great servant-hearted leaders and fulfill their God-given potential in the workplace and in their lives. When I have time, I love to cook, bake, entertain, sing, watch movies, go for long walks outside, and travel to new places. I also serve on the Board/Advisory Board of two not-for-profit organizations.

In your industry, is it hard to be female? Have you had an easy or difficult time finding men who will advocate for you?

I’m not sure our industry is necessarily tougher on women than other industries. However, there do seem to be fewer women in senior and executive levels than would be ideal. Being private-equity owned with an all-male Board doesn’t help either. It’s not unusual to find I am the only woman in a room of 27 people at Board meetings.

The real diversity issue, though, is the need for ‘cognitive diversity.’ Many of the peers with which I’m surrounded have similar skillsets and strengths. They tend to approach problem-solving in a more linear, analytical manner than I might instinctively do, which is absolutely not a bad thing. However, it can be to the exclusion of other perspectives and ideas that are equally valuable when it comes to making strong decisions. The challenge in finding advocates in this environment is finding supporters who truly understand and value a different way of thinking and are also willing to take time to invest in other people. It’s a lot more ‘dog eat dog’ than I have experienced elsewhere. 

Why do women struggle to find or grow advocates, male or female? 

First, we have to be our own self-advocate before we can ask anyone else to truly champion our success. Anyone who wants to grow needs to believe in themselves, their abilities and have a deep understanding of what they bring that is unique and adds value to an organization. I often sense that women struggle to push themselves forward in a highly-competitive and aggressive marketplace. We seem to focus on what we need to do better or our development opportunities and that desire to be ‘perfect first’ results in us holding ourselves back!

I also think women have a tendency to make excuses such as ‘because I am a mom, I can’t expect to have the same opportunities or to be taken as seriously as a man might.’ Actually, I’ve been surprised by the amount of support in the marketplace for working moms. It’s not always easy and, yes, my juggling and organization skills have definitely improved, but I sincerely believe that I am a better professional for being a mom and I also have two amazing reminders of who I’m working so hard for! Nothing relieves the stress of a totally hideous week more than snuggles on the sofa while we watch a movie. 

What are some important things you’ve learned in your career regarding seeking out and working with an advocate?

To be creative and not to put false limitations out there. For example, in recent years, I have not always found my immediate work environment or peers to be as supportive as I’d like. However, through disciplined networking and being willing to put myself out there (not easy for an introvert), I have found advocates and supporters everywhere who offer encouragement, bring opportunities to me, and have my back on tough days and in tough times. In turn, I get the immense privilege of being an advocate and supporter of others and the gratitude that builds as we mutually support and build each other up is a powerful inspiration, community at its very best. It’s win/win! Organizations such as 4word are a great source of encouragement and I thank God every day that they found me. 

If you want to be an advocate for someone, what are some best practices to keep in mind? 

Listen and keep an open mind about what that ‘someone’ is capable of or looking for. It’s easy to put each other in a box and see someone’s strengths from our perspective of who they should be or where we think they are gifted. Instead find out who they actually are, what makes them tick and imagine where their personality and talents could have world-changing impact.

Advocates need to have credibility to be effective. If you want to recommend others, your word and recommendation has to mean something. Nothing ruins the opportunities for someone you are trying to help more than if your recommendation is tainted by your own mistakes. It’s a true privilege to be part of helping anyone excel and reach their Godly potential, and we need to park any thoughts of ‘they need me.’ They don’t, plain and simple. We all need to keep that in mind when coaching or advocating for others. 

Anything else you’d like to share?

Just that I’m so grateful for the many, many people who have been there for me in my professional journey. I have been blessed with incredible roles, experiences, and opportunities that came along because others chose to see what I might be capable of and ignore many mistakes on my part! When I have tough days (and I do), reflecting with gratitude on the many blessings I’ve experienced in a varied career really helps to clear the gloom.

Emma Sharma serves as Chief Administrative Officer, General Counsel and Company Secretary of Valiant Integrated Services overseeing many of the vital administrative functions of the organization including the human resources, legal, contracts, security, compliance, business integrity, communications and procurement departments. As a co-founder of Valiant Integrated Services, Emma was able to draw on her 23+ years of experience as an international attorney, compliance professional and empathetic business leader. Additionally, Emma has a passion for organizational design, psychology and development and change management. Emma leads mentoring initiatives for fellow executives and senior managers at Valiant Integrated Services.

In recent years, Emma has worked internationally in a number of senior management and legal roles for recognized multinationals including Motorola, Business Objects (now part of SAP) and Capgemini. She is a graduate of the University of Cambridge, England and holds licenses to practice law in a number of jurisdictions.

Outside of work, Emma is a devoted wife and mom to 2 young children as well as an active member of Holy Trinity Church, McLean. In addition to serving as part of the 4word Advisory Board, Emma is the President of the Board of Trustees of a significant non-profit in Northern Virginia. Her hobbies include a passion for learning about great food and wine, music, movies and reading.