Women's Agenda mentors and sponsors

How to get mentors and sponsors who can support your career

Mentors and sponsors can be key to a successful leadership career. But how do you get them and make the most of such relationships?

This is Part Two of the Women’s Agenda Emerging Leaders Playbook, supported by Charles Sturt University. See the introduction here.

Part one covered the power of ‘goal setting’ a leadership career.

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.

You’ve no doubt heard about the importance of having mentors and sponsors in your corner when pursuing leadership ambitions.

These are experienced and trusted people who advise and support you as you move through your career. These relationships are critical, and there are a number of ways you can make sure you’re getting the most from their wisdom.

Building relationships with potential sponsors is also imperative. Sponsors are people who will directly advocate for you, even when you’re not in the room with them. They will put you forward and recommend you for roles, projects, promotions and other opportunities. In many cases, they will be putting their reputation on the line to do so.

Career coach Megan Dalla-Camina says the key to great relationships with mentors and sponsors is to know yourself.

“Know where you’re at, what your purpose is, what your career and leadership goals are,” she says. “Make sure you have done your own work on yourself. Your strengths, your gaps, your personal brand, where it’s all at. You need that sense of self-awareness.”

From there, she says, you can ask yourself the question: What do I actually need to be mentored on or sponsored for? This will save you time and energy and prevent you chasing supporters that you don’t need.

Be realistic about your talents and work ethic as well, Megan advises. “Often people struggle with getting the right mentors and sponsors because they haven’t done the work,” she says. “Self-awareness and self-knowledge is critical.”

Mentors and sponsors can often be found in your own workplace. These people are likely to know you the best and feel comfortable vouching for you. Seek out leaders in roles that you aspire to, and those that have the skills you’re after.

“Don’t be afraid to ask them to mentor you,” Megan says. “I meet so many people who say they don’t have mentors and I say, ‘Who have you asked?’ They respond, ‘No-one.’”

As for sponsors, Megan says the first step is to identify who they could be and then find ways to try and work alongside them. This might be pursuing a role on their team, on a project or in a committee. Use whatever opportunities you’re able, to exhibit just what you can do.

It’s also possible you already have sponsors and mentors, but you’ve never viewed them as such. Think about the ways you can leverage key relationships in your life. How can these supporters help propel your career?

Executive coach Ellie Brown says it’s important to take the time to build relationships that can turn into sponsors later on. “These relationships will come through your own hard work as well,” she says. “Start building your brand from day one and getting in front of the right people. There are a thousand other people out there, so you need to find the way that you will be different.”

By building contacts over the years through voluntary work and stretching outside her comfort zone, Ellie now has several people in her corner willing to advocate on her behalf. “People see what I can do, then when things come up they say, ‘I know Ellie will be great for this’,” she says.

Right now, there’s a huge focus on mentoring programs and initiatives within workplaces. Numerous women are looking to give back and support those who are coming up the leadership ladder behind them.

Charles Sturt University course director Dr Denise Wood advises emerging leaders to broaden their mentor base over time. Different stages of our leadership careers require distinctive guidance—and it’s natural to outgrow a mentor. When that happens, it’s okay to move on and start building new networks.

Finding role models is also crucial to leadership growth, even if they’re not physically part of your life. “It enables you to learn from a diverse range of people who you might not have the opportunity to even meet, or to regularly communicate with,” says Denise. One of the ways she recommends setting yourself up for growth is to read biographies and autobiographies and learn from your role models’ stories.

Finally, make sure you’re willing to contribute to this circle of support yourself. NSW Council of Social Service CEO Tracy McLeod Howe says she’s had “tons of mentors” during her career, but that she’s very much aware of the need to give back as a result.

“I’m never afraid to say that I’m vulnerable or don’t have the knowledge and to just go and ask someone,” she says. “But you have to give it back. You can’t just suck people dry. There is a karmic circle.”

Want to get mentored or sponsored? Try these tips:

Determine your mentoring areas of need

You’ll save yourself serious time and it’ll be far more fruitful if you know exactly what you’re hoping to gain from mentors. Start by considering your leadership goals and then make a list of the kind of advice you might need along the way.

Identify potential mentors and sponsors

Who is your ideal mentor and why? Ask these questions before aimlessly approaching people to mentor you. Just because someone is more senior than you doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the best person to mentor you. Once you’ve determined this, start listing names that are in or slightly beyond your network that might be suitable. Connect with them on social media and start following their work.

Simply ask

Don’t wait for somebody to request to mentor you, because you could be waiting a long time or find yourself being mentored by the wrong person. Once you’ve identified the best mentoring candidates, approach and ask them.

People are generous but also busy

Attending a ‘coffee catch-up’ takes much longer than the 30 minutes often allocated in the diary. So be mindful of people’s time and specific about why you might want to catch up with them. Have an agenda in mind, keep it to schedule and offer the option for a phone call if meeting in person is difficult.

Got a specific questions? What are you waiting for?

If you have a key question about your career or business that you’re looking for help with, take that specific question to someone who’ll be able to offer the right answer straight away. Don’t be scared to be direct—often people are grateful for it.

Find ways to get in front of mentors and sponsors

Working alongside a potential sponsor—in a committee, on a project or something else—is a great way to prove your capabilities and skills. Seek out these opportunities and take advantage of them.

Can individuals be mentors and sponsors?

Not all mentors will be suitable sponsors, but sometimes they definitely are. You should try to treat every mentoring relationship with respect; listen to their advice, show that you’re acting on it and report back on your results. The more dedicated you are, the more likely a mentor is to go above and beyond to help you succeed.

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