Mentor and Sponsor: Who, How, Where and When!

I am very passionate about women in technology finding a mentor or sponsor to help them move ahead in their careers. While it’s clear that women and men need to develop the same skills to be successful in their professions, women’s experience of the career journey is very different from that of their male counterparts. These differences are often due to a combination of factors that includes both the women themselves and the environments in which they operate. 

Recent research shows that 40% of women in technology roles believe a lack of mentors is the chief factor holding them back. Women and men both view sponsorship by senior leaders as essential for success and career development. However, women report fewer substantive interactions with senior leaders than their male counterparts do — and this gap widens as women and men advance in their careers. 

Having a mentor or sponsor in your corner can give your career a well-deserved boost and many leaders attribute their success to those that have helped them on their journey. Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo said “Each one of us in an executive level position has undoubtedly benefited from mentors who sought us out because they believed in the value that we could bring to our companies. And they understood and believed that our talents were enhanced by what made us different. And we have succeeded because of that belief in diversity in all its forms.” 

Drawing on my own experience, here’s a quick primer on what to look for and how to go about it. Before going into the details, though, I’d like to state my core belief: you need to know where you want to go before you can be helped on the path to your goal. Once you have this objective in mind, it will be much easier to work out how to obtain assistance in getting there and from whom. 

It’s also essential to know what kind of relationship you’re looking for: there are differences between the roles of mentor and sponsor; your ultimate objective may require one or the other – or perhaps both. 

In short, a mentor is someone who will form an ongoing relationship with you, a confidant and advisor who regularly observes your work and your progress. Mentors take the organisational view, applying its values and standards to give you insights into opportunities and pitfalls. On the other hand, a sponsor isn’t constantly engaged, but intervenes at key moments to promote your name within the organization – or outside it if that is your goal. A sponsor will advocate for you when you need to be more visible – a champion and influencer. 

To sum up, a mentor talks with you; a sponsor talks about you. 

Let’s look at who to focus on when considering a mentor. The obvious choice might seem to be women in senior positions, with experience and insight to share as mentors and influence to wield as sponsors. But don’t dismiss the option of choosing a male mentor. Research by Mercer reveals that 80% of executive decisions are still made by men – so a sponsor who can provide access to key projects and positions is likely to be male. And if you share the same values and career aspirations, this will overcome any considerations of gender. 

During my career, I have sought CEOs, functional leaders and board members to mentor me as I wanted to gain a holistic business view and be able to drive the business strategy – not just run a marketing function. I am grateful to all my mentors throughout my professional journey that have taught me about the industry, my role and leadership. 

How: Network! Don’t wait – seek out those who can help. Your company may have mentoring programmes – some even conduct ‘speed dating’ sessions to match mentors with mentees – and while it’s important to take full advantage of these, don’t be limited by their restraints. You may find your perfect mentor through the daily round of business, in a meeting or at an event. 

Whatever business role you are in, there will be relevant communities that can support your career and you may meet your new mentor. I am an Advisory Board member of Fintech B2B Marketing that joins together marketers within the same sector for networking, events and industry updates – this drives a community of like-minded professionals at various career stages, the perfect setting to find a mentor or become one yourself. I encourage you to find a network and community that matches your role and future aspirations. 

An essential part of ‘how’ is the way you approach your mentoring and sponsoring and ensure that the relationship is fruitful. There’s a key principle here: reciprocity. Don’t focus solely on what will benefit you – be sure to understand what’s in it for your mentor or sponsor. This is a two-way street – sponsorees / mentees are equally invested in their sponsors /mentors and commit to helping their sponsors / mentors accomplish their own goals. 

When: They say timing is everything and this applies doubly to your career. It’s never too early to start building a network and seeking the key individuals to help you achieve your goals. A mentor or sponsor can help at any stage of your career but a mentor is especially important early on; this is a period of intense activity as you meet a large cast of individuals who can help you or hinder your progress. Some of these relationships can have lasting benefits – locate the people who show interest in you, starting from those who interviewed you. 

It may be that some of these relationships only matter at watershed moments: when you’re seeking promotion or looking to succeed in a project. That’s when a relationship or friendship crystallises into that of a sponsor. Research shows that people with sponsors are 23% more likely to move up in their career than those without sponsors, and 44% of women with sponsors will ask their managers for a stretch assignment. 

Where: You can seek these relationships within the organisation, but for a mentor, look outside too. You don’t need to go to the C-suite at your company: someone on a similar path to yours, or with a similar background within or outside your organisation, could be ideal as well. 

Finally, if you benefit from the attention of a sponsor or mentor, remember to pay it forward: being mentored teaches you how to become a mentor; gaining influence puts you in a position to be a sponsor. Having received the benefits of mentorship and sponsorship, always be prepared to do the same for others.