In the workforce, doing great work isn’t enough to accelerate your career. Mentors and sponsors ensure your great work is appreciated. My mentor has been a tremendously valuable source of guidance throughout my career, and our partnership helped me earn my most recent (and significant) promotion.
You may be asking what the difference is between "mentors" and sponsors." Let’s take a moment to define terms:
- Mentors provide guidance, coaching, and perspective on your career and professional ambitions. The best of my mentors have spent their time as a second set of eyes on my life decisions, and love this article on the four things the best mentors do. Mentors may be within or outside of your organization.
- Sponsors may do some of the things mentors do, but they exert effort on your behalf. They actively seek, develop and create professional opportunities for you. I believe you must have at least one sponsor within your own organization, whether or not it's in an official corporate program.
An ideal mentor may have some qualities of a sponsor, and vice versa. There's no set metric for success within a mentor and mentee relationship, but that shouldn't stop you from pursuing one at work. When it comes to finding, establishing and fostering mentorships in the workplace, women unsurprisingly lag behind men.
A report by executive search firm Egon Zehnder indicated that only 54 percent of women have sponsors or mentors supporting their career. Frustratingly, women have fewer sponsors than men. In my experience, I find we are less assertive about developing a senior mentorship because we often feel uncomfortable asking people for help. If you don’t yet have a mentor and are looking to become a mentee, you can find six tips on how to get one in this article.
A strong mentor-mentee relationship can change your career for the better. Though I have a few incredible women I rely on for advice, my primary mentor is an amazing, inspiring businesswoman with over a decade of additional professional experience. Let’s call her Amani. Her guidance has been valuable throughout my career and she played a massive role in helping me secure a big promotion.
Eighteen months ago, I felt stuck in a professional rut. Amani and I had a conversation where I shared this feeling with her, and she asked me several pointed questions to help me diagnose the source of my anxiety. I find that the best mentors, like Amani, often listen more than they speak. Instead of telling us what to do, they help us find the answers on our own.
One of the questions she asked me was: “If you weren’t stuck, what would be happening differently at work and in your career?” This simple, thoughtful question required me to gather my thoughts. I shared some of the frustrations that would be eliminated, the projects I’d stop spending time on, how I’d change my staff and the new things I’d take on. “Well,” Amani chuckled, “let’s build your plan to do just that.”
Over the next several weeks, I evaluated and retired various lower-value projects; I assessed my staff and adjusted workload and responsibilities. With Amani’s guidance echoing in my head, I built a small working team to re-evaluate internal processes that had grown cumbersome and inefficient and began working towards new goals that inspired me.
In the eighteen months that followed, Amani served as a “second set of eyes,” as I ran any new project and commitment by her. Her objective perspective and advice helped me evaluate which opportunities truly matched the revised goals of my career.
Amani helped me practice for major career moments as well. Before a particularly difficult meeting with several executives that never agreed on anything, she was my audience as I practiced the meeting, focusing executive concerns and questions I would need to address.
Amani helped me clarify my focus and served as a meaningful source of inspiration, particularly when some of my proposals went down in flames. Live any great mentor, she reminded me, “Your next role isn’t going to come because you were right every time, it’s going to be awarded to you because you’re a great executive and thoughtful leader. Keep proving that, and the opportunity will come.”
Importantly, my mentor helped me communicate the case for my promotion in the six months leading up to the review cycle. She and I would discuss which leaders had confirmed their support and work on which critical promotion decision-makers needed to shift from neutral to supportive.
My great work and strong leadership earned me a promotion eighteen months after I articulated my feeling of being professionally “stuck” with Amani. Her guidance, support, and objective advice are things I’m forever grateful for, and they've been crucial to my professional development.
The mentoring relationship may not seem like a two-way street, so you might be curious as to how I pay her back. She always asks one thing: that I return the favor by mentoring other women. I’m happy to oblige.
The Feminist Financier is on a mission to help women build wealth and own their financial independence, by improving financial literacy and taking the mystery out of money. Ms. Financier is also a shoe addict, travel fanatic, and wine enthusiast.