Mentors and Sponsors
Of all the people you will meet across your career, none are as important to achieving your goals as mentors and sponsors. But what are they, who are they, how many do you need, and how do you find them?
Mentors are trusted individuals who offer guidance and advice. They can be peers, superiors, colleagues, anyone with an experience you don’t have that you can leverage. An interesting thing about mentors is that you don’t always know just how much experience a person has that can be useful to you until you’ve taken some time to get to know them over a period of several months or years. Sharing your experiences often brings up insights into their own past experiences, and they can help you ‘see into the future’ by giving you a possible course of action (their own choices) and a possible outcome (their resulting experiences).
You can have various mentors for various different things. For example, if I am interested in research and academia, I might choose to repeatedly pick the brains of a friend who just started a career in academic teaching, and a post doc I see often who is pursuing a career in research. They will have different experiences and insights that can help me decide what path I want to follow, and suggest options for how to get there. There is no limit on the number of mentors you can have, but the quality of the relationship is worth more than the quantity. You are building a very real and practical career support group, and friendships to boot.
Mentors can be found through several avenues. They may already be in your network, as in the case of coworkers and supervisors. You may discover them unexpectedly, as in a friendship that strikes up due to good conversation on a plane during a long flight. Or you may seek them out, as in the case of intentional mentoring programs (such as the GradSWE mentoring program), or asking an individual with experience you are interested in for advice.
Sponsors are advocates, individuals who are invested in your success. These are people who will highlight your work, connect you to key individuals, and help you make the right moves to advance through your role and organization. For example, they could be direct supervisors, PIs, managers, or more senior engineers who are well established in the company or field.
You may not know all your sponsors, but you should know at least one in your workplace. Sponsors need to advocate for you even when you are not in the room, and thus by nature, you won’t always know who is willing to stand up for you. But you can always find individuals who you notice say and do things to promote the work of others, and those are the people you want to garner to sponsor you and your work as well. You can ask them directly to sponsor you, or your company may have a program that pairs you, or you might have a mentor that you work with that is also a really great advocate.
Do I need one, the other, or both?
Most would agree that you give your career the greatest advantage if you foster both mentoring and sponsorship relationships. The reason is because of the different roles they serve. It is not always appropriate to ask your mentor about specific organizational details at work that are important to your success, and likewise you may want to bounce ideas about work/life balance and job offers off someone who is not sponsoring you to advance in their organization. So in this case, don’t pick one, have both! Explore different options for mentors and sponsors, and find a few on either side who you have a mutual connection with that you can foster long term relationships, and who can help you get the most out of your career.
- Stanford University. The Key Role of Sponsorship. SLAC. Accessed 14 JAN 2019. <https://inclusion.slac.stanford.edu/sites/inclusion.slac.stanford.edu/files/The_Key_Role_of_a_Sponsorship_for_Diverse_Talent.pdf>
- Forbes Leadership Forum Contributor. Mentorship vs Sponsorship, and How to Maximize Both. Forbes.2 OCT 2015. Accessed 14 JAN 21019. <https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesleadershipforum/2015/10/02/mentorship-vs-sponsorship-and-how-to-maximize-both/#2985a45b2435>
- Carpenter, Julia. Why you need a sponsor, not just a mentor. CNNMoney. 24 OCT 2017. Accessed 14 JAN 2019. <https://money.cnn.com/2017/10/24/pf/women-sponsor-mentor/index.html>
- Berhane, Sava. Why Women Need Career Sponsors More Than Mentors. Fast Company. 28 AUG 2015. Accessed 14 JAN 2019. <https://www.fastcompany.com/3050430/why-women-need-career-sponsors-more-than-mentors>
- Meyer, Eileen Hoenigman. Sponsors vs. Mentors: What’s the Difference and Why It Matters. Glassdoor. 31 JAN 2018. Accessed 14 JAN 2019. <https://www.glassdoor.com/blog/sponsors-vs-mentors/>