I've heard that mentorship is a great way to get ahead in one's career. Friends, family and advice columns all say that if I'm ambitious, I need to find that one person to sponsor me, coach me or join my "personal advisory committee" (whatever that is). However, I'm having trouble finding a mentor that l feel connected to, as most of the leaders at my company are older white men. Is it better to learn from the proverbial Boys Club, or should I seek someone external who has already shattered a ceiling or two? If so, how do I find them and get them to mentor me?
Okay, this is a great question! Before we get into my hot take, I want to quickly address some of the advice your friends and family have given you, (SORRY FRIENDS AND FAMILY)! Ambition and finding a mentor are not mutually exclusive. It’s important to not tie your value or worth to the ease of finding a mentor or sponsor. It takes time and in some cases finding one, or the other, or both doesn’t happen for everybody and that’s okay. Are there benefits to both mentorship and sponsorship? Hell yeah! Can you become whatever your definition of ‘successful’ is without formally having either? Hell yeah! Now that we've addressed that, let's move on.
The first thing I would love to do is create some quick clarity between what the heck the difference is between a mentor, and a sponsor and what's known as a personal advisory committee.
“In short, mentors advise you and sponsors advocate for you. Mentors have mentees. Sponsors have protégés. A mentor could be anyone in a position with experience desired by a mentee who can offer advice and support. A sponsor is a senior level staff member invested in a protégé's career success" (Stanford Education)
A personal advisory committee is not just one person but is a whole group of people that you have chosen to be your go-to's for not only professional advice, but personal aspects of your life as well. You can definitely add mentors and sponsors to your committee, but it’s not limited to just those folks.There should be people on your personal advisory committee who are in similar life stages as you and those who aren’t. Check out this Medium article for some hot tips on how to build your personal advisory board and how to ask folks to be on your personal advisory board.
Now, onto your question. Should you leverage the good Proverbial Boys Club at work or look externally? I say: why can’t you have your cake and eat it too? Why choose one? Abundance mindset is the name of the game here.
The majority of the sponsors I’ve had in my professional life have happened to be white men, if I’m being completely honest. And the majority of them have been in leadership roles. So this could be a great way for you to leverage that internal network. Now, I know it can be intimidating to approach folks, especially those with privilege and power, but don’t forget to remind yourself that YOU have experiences and gifts that you can share with THEM as well. The best sponsor relationships I have had have been reciprocal. So start to think about what context, lived experiences, subject matter expertise, etc. do you have that you can offer up? Some other lessons I have learned along the way that have led to impactful sponsor relationships:
- Be your excellent self. When your work can speak for itself, it is way easier to get time with folks because they will already have insights into your potential and may more readily want to invest time in you. Don’t be afraid to share with a potential sponsor the work you have done and what your accomplishments have been. You can’t rely on other people to boost you up. You’ve gotta do it yourself. Move past that discomfort.
- Proactively build relationships. Don’t wait until you need something to start building relationships with folks. Start now...like today! Even a simple Slack or LinkedIn message to introduce yourself to them and say that you would love to learn more about their path into their industry, the challenges they have faced and overcome, what business concerns keep them up at night, etc. The majority of humans, (even though many won’t admit it) LOVE to talk about themselves in some capacity. If you are a human, you have an ego, and tapping into that when building relationships doesn’t have to be disingenuous.
- Time is money, honey. When you are booking time into somebody’s calendar, make sure you let them know in advance what you want to talk to them about. Avoid prattling on. Being clear and concise can signal confidence, and is respectful of people's time. Sometimes we have to fake it a bit, but as you go, showing up, and taking up space and advocating for yourself will become easier to do.
- Sometimes it’s short and sweet. There have been many times where a person has acted as a sponsor to me on a specific project, to invest in an idea I have had or in a specific instance i.e. to act as a reference for a board role. And that’s totally cool! Leave your guilt at the door. I’ve always followed up with them to give them updates here and there, but otherwise it’s sometimes a one and done scenario.
Now, let’s touch on mentors. I've found that my most fruitful, mentor relationships (compared to sponsors, who can be more transactional) have happened when I have sought out folks who do share an aspect of my identity and values. It's helpful for me to learn from people who have overcome similar barriers that I will likely face as a Black, neurodiverse woman navigating my life and career. How do you find one? I will let you in on a little personal secret: I have never formally asked somebody to be my mentor nor has somebody ever formally asked me to mentor them, but I have definitely played the role of mentee and mentor multiple times. If you are the type of person who needs to create that clarity for yourself then definitely ask for that, but it's often better to let a long term relationship like a mentor develop organically.If you can't find someone perfect, know that some of the best mentors I've had don't require me to actually know them. Think Michelle Obama or Esther Perel.
Whether you’re trying to find a mentor, sponsor, or personal advisory committee member, look for folks with diverse perspectives who have your back, fill your cup, and who aren’t afraid to give you some real talk when it’s needed. It may take some time. It will likely involve you going outside of your comfort zone. Maybe you'll never have a mentor, but find some awesome sponsors along the way. Or maybe you never find a mentor or sponsor, but have an amazing personal advisory committee or personal community that gives you all of the insights and support you need. Do what works for you! Do remember that one day it'll be your turn to give back, so take notes about how those along your journey showed up for you and be sure to pay it forward. In the end, we can go farther if we move together and uplift each other.
Have a tough question about DEI at work? Ask Shav! As Bright + Early’s resident Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Consulting Lead, Shav helps companies all over the world build inclusive environments. Have a question about building an inclusive workplace, (or surviving one that’s not)? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Ask Shav”.