The Truth About Mentors by Debbie Choy Grage

The Truth About Mentors by Debbie Choy Grage
1 comment, 18/06/2014, by , in Women At Work

When I started my first job in corporate America 15 years ago, everybody I spoke with gave me this piece of advice: “Find a mentor.” It seems finding a mentor was the secret to helping me navigate the secret rules of the company’s culture. That was my first inkling that apart from the Employee Handbook, there were additional unwritten rules to getting ahead. These “rules” would include important topics from how to handle office politics to how to position for a promotion. Assigned through the company mentorship program, which paired mentees and mentors like online dating algorithms, I was paired with an associate a few years my senior, whom I’ll call Jennifer. We had lunch every month during which I updated her on the projects I was working on, and she offered me general advice on how to perform well. She was nice enough, and was certainly knowledgeable about the best places to go for happy hour. But when it came to the questions that really mattered, like how to advance in my career, I realized that she could not help me. In fact, I was looking for help in the wrong place. For someone who could help me get promoted, I should not have been looking to my mentor. I should have been looking for a sponsor.

What Is A Sponsor?
A sponsor is usually a senior manager who can advocate for you during promotion season or introduce you to your next opportunity. Unlike a mentor, a sponsor is not someone you go to with your general career challenges. A sponsor is someone you go to only when you have a specific “ask.” An “ask” could be: “I would like to get a promotion.” Or “I want to transfer out of this department.” Sponsors are movers and shakers who can make things happen, but are so busy that they probably won’t have time to hear you vent about your difficult client. Sponsors can help you by doing something for you. “It seems finding a mentor was the secret to helping me navigate the secret rules of the company’s culture. That was my first inkling that apart from the Employee Handbook, there were additional unwritten rules to getting ahead.”

What Can A Sponsor Help Me With?
A sponsor is someone who goes beyond mentoring to help you think through questions such as:
• What types of roles would best advance your career?
• Who you are exposed to?
• Who you should have lunch with?
• What types of development programs are right for you?
• Are you getting feedback?
• Are you being assigned a coach?

How To Approach A Sponsor
Let’s say you did some work for a senior executive who now thinks highly of you. How exactly do you approach this person to be your sponsor? My suggestion is to start by asking this person for advice. For example, you might say, “I really enjoyed doing that project with you. I’ve been at the company for several years and have been thinking about my future here. I’d love to get your thoughts on the best next steps for someone like me.” That would open the conversation to your career goals and how you could achieve them. Whatever you do, do not open with, “Can I ask you to be my sponsor?” That approach is too formal and outdated. Just think about what you would ask the sponsor to help you with, and slowly start a conversation around that. If you encounter resistance from the person, approach with caution! It may not be a good time for them, or they may just not be ready yet.

What’s In It For Them?
You may be wondering, “Why would a senior executive help me?” Firstly, senior executives – at least the good ones – pride themselves on being able to spot and groom talent. Everybody loves to give advice. Further, it is flattering when a young person looks up to you for career help. Secondly, sponsors operate on a quid pro quo basis. In that equation, since you had worked very hard for them, it would only be appropriate for them to help you advance in your career. The mark of a great executive is when their direct reports
do well too. In return, the expectation is that you continue to be a good team player and help them out when they need you.

Who Could Be A Good Sponsor?
Use these questions to help you evaluate if someone would be a good sponsor for you:
• Is this person a senior manager?
• Does this person know you and/or your work well?
• Does this person have influence and credibility with other senior decision-makers?
• Is this person willing to speak up for you in front of others?

Do I Need A Sponsor?
Not everybody needs a sponsor. If your manager looks out for you, and you are getting the recognition and promotions that you deserve, you are probably fine on your own. Or if you feel you can plan your career adequately on your own, then keep doing what you’re doing. But we could all use help sometimes. Getting ahead is hard work. Why do it alone?

About Debbie Grage

Debbie Grage
Debbie is an ALIST founder and Career Section Editor. She holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Her past community roles have included serving as CFO of the Asian Society at the Stanford GSB, and as a board member with the Association of Women MBA (SF). Debbie is also founder of the MenMuu Leadership Institute and specializes in helping professionals who want to manage their careers proactively. Her career blog can be found at