Developing a successful career is a long and difficult journey, especially if you are doing it all on your own. However, career development does not have to be an independent task. A smarter and common approach to advance one’s career relies on the help from both mentors and sponsors. In this article, we will discuss the importance and differences of having mentors versus sponsors. We will also introduce strategies to help you identify and connect with them.
While in graduate school, most of you have had the experience of working under the guidance of one or several mentors who focus on different aspects of your training. Similarly, having one or several mentors who have expertise in different areas in the workplace or during job searching is just as important for your professional and career development. A mentor’s role can include sharing how they accomplished their goals, cheering you on, giving you career advice and guidance that align with your career goals, and leading you to new career opportunities, a promotion, or even better work-life balance.
How to find a mentor
The first step of the mentor search process is to define your goals, a.k.a your mentorship needs or expectations. Having clear expectations and goals can help you determine the kind of mentor(s) you need, how mentors can help you, and the type of conversations/interactions you should have with potential mentors. One strategy to set effective and realistic goals is by applying the S.M.A.R.T. metrics, which emphasize that your goals need to be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
The next step is to identify potential mentor(s). Your mentor(s) can be someone who has the dream job that you want in the next 10-15 years, a role model of yours at work, your former manager, a coworker in another department, or even family and friends. An ideal mentor would be already aware of your work and abilities (but this familiarity can also be developed over time) and have the expertise you are looking for. Additionally, you want to make sure that your potential mentors share your core values, are comfortable giving you constructive criticism, and are available to invest time and energy into the mutual relationship with their mentee. It is also important to recognize that people of all ages can seek mentorship and may have the life and work experience to become a mentor. Last but not least, a mentorship should be enjoyable for both the mentor and the mentee. This certainly requires adequate relationship building that involves everything we’ve discussed above and much more, such as an authentic professional connection, respect for one another, and being open to listening.
How to reach out to a potential mentor
Before formally asking for mentorship, it is critical to set up an informal meeting first, especially if you don’t have a previous relationship with your potential mentor, to learn more about them, build trust, make sure it’s the right fit (see section above), and introduce them to your personal or professional goals.
Once you are ready to ask for mentorship at your next meeting, here are a few things that you should mention to your potential mentor at the meeting:
Mention a few points that you’ve learned from previous meetings/conversations with them.
Clearly describe the guidance that you seek and your reasons.
Explain why you would like them, specifically, to become your mentor.
Specify how often you would like to meet and for how long per session.
Mention that you will prepare an agenda that aligns with your overall goals for each meeting.
Express your appreciation for their time and consideration whether they agree to be your mentor or not.
Ask them if there is anything specific that they wish to gain from the experience.
If you don’t hear a response from your potential mentor(s) right away, you can send a follow-up email a few weeks later as a reminder. However, if they still don’t reply within a reasonable amount of time, it might be time to shift your focus to the next candidate.
Mentorship versus sponsorship
Mentorship is commonly confused with sponsorship. Despite the possibility of career advancement through a mentor, mentorship is more focused on career guidance and navigation. Therefore, do not expect mentors to include you in their professional network or directly introduce you to people who could help advance your career (although it might happen occasionally). In contrast, sponsorship is more about directly advocating you to other people for your career success. A sponsor would elevate your visibility at work, lead you to important opportunities, place you in new roles, ensure you get credit, and defend you in your absence. Therefore, unlike mentors who help you “skill up”, sponsors are essentially people who unlock career doors for you and help you move up.
How to gain sponsorship
Compared to finding a mentor, winning a sponsor is not as straightforward. In fact, you don’t choose the sponsor; the sponsor almost always chooses you. Here are a few tips that can help you attract the attention of a potential sponsor:
Be indispensable and visible
All sponsors have their own agenda, and they will advocate for you if your goals align with their interests. Their agenda might be to achieve a business outcome, to accomplish a corporate priority, or to build a high-performing network that will elevate their own career prospects. In order to be a part of their agenda, you need to show your value and why they need you. Therefore, you must be able to demonstrate good performance and make your accomplishments noticed. This means not only being good at your job but also going above and beyond. Don’t let others claim your ideas or contributions to the team–try to present them directly to senior colleagues and leadership.
Show your ambition
Once you have excelled at your regular job responsibilities, now is the time to seek more challenging tasks. If you have identified a potential sponsor, who might be a leader in your organization with a track record of developing talent, try to find projects where you can directly work for that person or join committees that he or she serves on. If you don’t feel prepared to take on additional roles at work, you can start by shadowing or supporting someone on a similar project before officially volunteering for the next opportunity that comes along.
As we have stated in previous blogs, networking is key in all social and work settings. Networking will allow you to gain opportunities to showcase yourself in front of a mentor or a senior colleague. Sponsorship can also emerge from networking. In this scenario, you would first develop a personal relationship with a potential sponsor over a common hobby or work-related activity. During your interactions, your skills and qualities may then be noticed by the sponsor. It is also beneficial to network within your sponsor’s network-your sponsor will become more confident in your abilities through other people’s positive impression of you.
Both mentorships and sponsorships can have a huge impact on your professional and career development. Additionally, mentorships and sponsorships can also facilitate diversity in the workplace. Whether you are a student or an early career professional, start taking actions today and seize the attention of your potential mentors/sponsors.