Think You Don't Need a Mentor?

You do. And let me tell you why.

When I started my career, my first manager wanted to connect me with a mentor. Having just graduated from college, I had no idea what that meant. But I did recognize that it was politically correct to agree to it; how could I not? The mentor I was assigned oversaw our agency’s Asia offices. While distance was challenging and frankly a bit daunting, the relationship started me down a path I only now truly appreciate. She helped me shape my point of view, look at relationships differently and recognize that differences can be productive, and she gave me the tools I needed for success.

I reflect on that mentor-to-mentee relationship with fond admiration that someone would take the time to help me grow and develop as a leader and valued contributor. In the end, she was more than a mentor; she became a sponsor who would influence others to advocate for me. That advocacy gave me opportunities at the agency I probably couldn’t have accomplished on my own — like going on a three-month assignment in the Hong Kong office, a position she recommended me for.

Here’s the difference between a mentor and a sponsor, and why you need both: While your manager helps you with your performance goals, a mentor helps you with your interpersonal and career goals, and a sponsor helps you with your reputation goals. All three immensely impacted my growth for the same reason — they helped me advance my career.

The Oxford Dictionary defines mentor as “an experienced and trusted adviser.” Pretty simple, right? Someone who counsels you on challenges or helps broaden your perspective on working and playing nice with others. It could be as simple as offering tips and tricks on how to best lead your team or how to work through a performance issue. Regardless, having a mentor gives you an opportunity to share what’s happening in your world in a way you wouldn’t want to with your manager.

  • Finding a mentor: Most companies have mentorship programs as part of their leadership and development commitment. In the agency world, those programs can be more difficult to find. The simplest way to find a mentor is to connect with those you respect and recognize as strong leaders. Whether male or female, it doesn’t really matter, as long as there is a compatible relationship based on trust between you and your mentor. For me, I appreciated having men as my mentors, as they often provided a different perspective on how to approach challenges or unique situations. If you need help finding a mentor, I am sure your manager can be of great help to match you. Just ask.
  • Demonstrating effort: It is important to remember that once you have found a mentor you need to own the relationship, own the quality of each interaction you have with your mentor and own the circle of trust you build with them. You get out of it what you put into it — it’s a two-way relationship where both participants must have a role and complement each other.

A sponsor does not typically come from a formal mentorship program. And often, finding a sponsor can be more difficult, simply because it stems from less rigid relationships. You won’t always know who your sponsors are, but they are people who will advocate for you when you are looking for more visibility within your organization. It’s someone who recognizes your unique talents and tells others about them. So how do you find a sponsor?

  • Building strong relationships: The adage “you are only as good as your network” applies here. Finding a sponsor is about knowing those around you, inside and outside of your circle. Often, a sponsor is at the management level. That is primarily because they have a level of influence that they can use to advocate on your behalf. As mentioned earlier, my mentor became my sponsor over time and helped me reach my goal of working in one of our international offices. It’s because she simply recommended me.

Mentors and sponsors have your back.
We are always looking for ways to grow professionally and add value as employees, and we always want to say “I love my job.” In her book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” Sheryl Sandberg (chief operating officer of Facebook) wrote “Both men and women with mentors and sponsors are more likely to ask for stretch assignments and pay raises than their peers of the same gender without sponsors.” Having mentors and sponsors throughout your career supports that growth, gives you confidence and enhances skills you never thought you had.

And here is one last thought … you could very easily add as much value to the mentor-and-mentee relationship when your mentor or sponsor feels equally inspired by what you have to say. How great would that be?

Photo by Tim Bogdanov

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