CAREER CHECK LIST: Find A Sponsor, Not Just A Mentor

Do you remember Teairra Mari’s song Sponsor?  These days, I’m thinking that she just might have been on to something.

Hold up.

I don’t mean 'sponsor' in the “pay my bills, buy my weave, make me your kept lady” sense – but in the business sense. You see, if you don’t have a sponsor, you might want to get you one.

Last month, I attended the She’s Connected Conference, where Kate White – former Editor In Chief of Cosmopolitan Magazine – spoke about her keys to success. One point she made was in relation to having sponsors versus having mentors. It was an angle I hadn't heard before.

I’m paraphrasing Ms. White right now, but my definitions from her discussion are the following:

Mentors: people you look up to, who have the experience you are working to gain, who have been where you are and who are now where you want to be. People who you can connect with, learn from, seek guidance from, and bounce ideas and thoughts off of.

Sponsors: people who may do all the same things as mentors, but who have the ability to open doors for you, connect you to the right people, who can make positive change happen with a phone call or an email. Simply put, sponsors are power players who don’t just allow you to learn from them, but they make things happen for you.

Now, can mentors make things happen for you like sponsors do? Sure – but not every mentor can be a sponsor, and not every sponsor makes the best mentor.

I have mentors whose moves I've followed by reading their articles and interviews. Others who I've found on Twitter or Facebook and interacted with through social media. Others are face-to-face, particularly one amazing boss I had who I STILL keep in contact with and who helps me to figure out my next step. In my 9-5 and 5-? lives, I've found some great mentors who have been amazing go-to resources in my various career moves. However, a sponsor? That’s a different ballgame altogether.

After Kate White’s keynote speech, I realized I haven’t really had much experience with sponsors. I've usually used my own drive or tips from my mentors to knock on doors and get into the avenues that I wanted to pursue. I have seen other people interact with sponsors, and heard stories about how a lunch with one person led to a meeting with another, which led to an amazing opportunity. The closest personal example I could think of was when I had my sights on a new promotion at work. As soon as I saw the posting for the position, I set up a meeting with one of the senior people in the department and let them know my intentions. That senior person was able to connect me with my would-be boss for an informational meeting. I was successful in getting the position, and have that extra layer of connection to thank for it, as opposed to merely submitting my resume and hoping for the best.

Having a sponsor vs. mentor can give you more credibility. If your sponsor is an upstanding, respected member of their circle, the badge of approval that they give you will speak volumes. Mentors may not have that same connection ability, and therefore may not be able to vouch for you in the same way. However, not all sponsors will have the characteristics that make them great mentors. They may not have the time or the patience that your traditional mentors do – and that’s OK. In my book, everyone can’t be everything to everybody, so as long as your players play their positions well, that’s what’s important.

A point Kate White also made was regarding the fact that she feels men seek sponsors and women seek mentors. I have definitely seen this in my 9-5 life – more men seemed to be more active with their goal attainment, and seemed to know exactly who to speak to in order to make things happen. More of the women I know found mentors to help them figure out their next steps and to be a sounding board, but seemed to be missing that active agent. Research continually focuses on how ‘nice girls don’t get the corner office” - I've seen this play out with women who wait to be handpicked for roles, who plan to apply then find out who their competition is and drop out, or who simply don’t want to come across as too pushy or forward. If this sounds like you, take a look at your track record and see if it’s benefited you at all. If not, STOP IT and GO GET YOURS. Be intentional, be present, be active – and find the people who are not only going to help you plan the next step, but who will lead you to the tangible opportunities themselves.

So – how should you go about getting a sponsor? To be honest, I’m still figuring it out myself. My steps are to start off by watching and observing. Who are the “movers and shakers” in your industry? Who are the people that seem to be well-connected and well-respected? Who are the people that are where you want to be, or who are within 2 degrees of separation from the person who is where you want to be? Once you've identified the potential sponsor, you have to make that first move to be forward – find a way to meet them, to discuss your interests and intentions, and to build a rapport with them. We always hear stories of people who were minding their own business, doing what they do, and being handpicked by a sponsor who took them under their wing. If you're lucky enough to have your sponsor seek you out, congrats! However, I don’t think we should wait for that magic moment, because it might never come. Get out there and start that connection – you've got to give something to get something. Once you've connected with your sponsor, stay connected. You want to stay fresh in their mind so that if an opportunity arises, you’re there – or if you decide to directly ask them to connect you to with another power player, their immediate response won’t be “And who are you again?” 

Long story short, if you've never considered the benefits of having a sponsor, you should. Having someone in your circle that can connect you to the right people, places, and things could prove to be invaluable. Don't be afraid of seeking out and utilizing this resource, because I guarantee - if you don't, the next person coming for your spot will.

What do you think about the differences between sponsors and mentors? Do you have a sponsor? If so, how did you find them? If you're looking for another perspective on sponsors, check this post on This Is Your Conscience!

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