Key career changes often happen due in part to moves from influential sponsors and/or personal mentors.
You are probably great at relationships, so you can use this natural strength to develop relationships that will help you advance in your career. A Mentor and a Sponsor are specific kinds of relationships with people who are in a position to help you grow personally and professionally.
What is the difference between a Mentor and a Sponsor?
A Mentor is a person at any level of the organization who supports your personal development and can guide you professionally. Your discussions might range from insight on the unwritten rules of the organization to sharing vulnerabilities in your personal growth.
In the best case, a Mentor is someone who gives you real talk. From the trust built in the relationship, a mentor can give feedback that other people didn’t feel comfortable sharing, providing you with a pivotal moment that can lead to growth you didn’t even know you needed.
In contrast, you want to keep a focus on your putting your best foot forward with a Sponsor. A Sponsor is a person senior enough in the organization that they can use their influence and clout to advocate for you. Their job is to make introductions, bring up your name for opportunities, and talk about you favorably when you are not in the room. Make it a priority to secure a Sponsor because they are often a pivotal factor in advancing in your career. Historically, women have been over-mentored and under-sponsored.
Develop your relationship organically with a Mentor or Sponsor
The easiest and best way to secure a Mentor or Sponsor is to formalize an existing relationship that is going well. If you have someone who is already in a Mentoring or Sponsoring role, ask them if they would be open to making a more intentional relationship.
Whenever possible, try to cultivate a relationship with a Sponsor that is bi-directional. You might think you have nothing to give a more senior person, but that’s not true. Maybe you are in a key part of the organization that they need someone on the inside to help them with their projects. If you continue to be a rock star, then as your Sponsor they get the reflected glory of being the person who discovered you!
Another great way to create these relationships is to apply for and take advantage of any formal programs offered by your organization or the women’s leadership association in your industry.
Find Mentors and Sponsors through company or industry events
Prioritize going to gatherings of senior leaders in your organization. Examples of where you would meet leaders outside of your working group might be at company town halls, meetings of business resource groups, and conferences your company sponsors or leaders attend.
Go up to them before or after the meetings start and introduce yourself. Even though they are senior leaders, they are people too! Tell them what you appreciate about their leadership, or about an idea you have that will help the organization. Just begin the conversation so you can follow up and ask for a 1:1 meeting afterward.
Be proactive about participating in social gatherings of work colleagues. Many women experience that men withhold information about gatherings among other men or engage in activities that feel exclusionary for many women because of the time or the activity (e.g., golf or fishing outings, after work drinks, etc.). If this is the case for you, propose alternative get-togethers for people in your group. You can host a pot luck dinner on your schedule or participate in a volunteer day activity; otherwise, you can ask a close male colleague to facilitate your entrance into one of the boys gatherings.
Seek out and invite a Mentor and/or a Sponsor relationship
You can also approach someone you don’t yet know in order to be a Mentor or Sponsor. Look over an organizational chart of people in your company or a map of leaders in your industry, and see who has the qualities you identified as criteria for a Mentor or Sponsor.
Start the conversation by telling them the reasons why you are choosing them. This might include what you admire about their leadership or success, or the specific qualities you would like to learn from them. If you are asking for Sponsorship, the person may want to know more about you and your career aspirations before committing. Offer them a way to gracefully bow out if they don’t feel it’s a good fit, if they need to get to know you more over time, or are too overextended to commit at the current time.
Finally, consider having a “Reverse Mentorship”
A way to stay current and expand your horizons is with a Reverse Mentor. This relationship is defined when someone younger or with less career experience guides your growth in an area you are less experienced in (e.g. your 22-year-old friend teaches an older person the latest in social media; your gay friend shares their experience to help you be a better ally, etc).
No need to feel intimidated at the prospect of initiating a Mentor or Sponsorship relationship. Remember that these are relationships, so all of the know-how you have about how to be a great participant in relationships will apply to these relationships too!