Mentors can be meaningful at any age, and at any stage of a career. Even seasoned veterans can benefit from mentoring. For instance, older workers who are not “digital natives” could benefit from the mentoring of younger colleagues who may be more comfortable with technology.
The Difference Between Mentors and Sponsors
Both mentors and sponsors can play important roles in helping businesspeople advance in their careers. But these roles are quite different.
We covered these differences in another post. Mentors serve as a resource to help mentees “practice ideas, level set on issues as they arise and gain advice on the proper way to handle various workplace issues.” Sponsors are those who have the ability to actually pave the way for others to gain opportunities and career advancement.
Serving as a Mentor or Sponsor
Early in most people’s careers, they are more likely to receive the benefit of mentorship or sponsorship from others. As they progress in their careers, though, they will find that they, themselves, have the ability to serve in these roles.
In some cases, your early experiences in these roles may be incidental. Other colleagues may turn to you for guidance or advice and you may not even realize that you are serving as a mentor. Or, you may be impressed by someone’s potential and recommend them for an opportunity without recognizing that you are actually serving in a sponsor role.
But, as your career progresses you may become more intentional about the role you can play as either a mentor or sponsor and, over time, interested in becoming better in these roles. Here we take a look at how to become a better mentor or sponsor.
How to Become a Better Mentor
In an article for Training Journal, Laura Francis offers five tips for being a better mentor:
- Listen and observe before advising. It’s important for mentors to have a solid understanding of what is important to their mentees—what are their career aspirations and interests? What areas do they believe they excel in? What areas do they feel they might improve? Francis suggests: “Strive to be an empathetic listener and observer, and put effort into listening and observing before you offer advice.”
- Enable quick wins. Mentees want to have some sense that the relationship is providing benefits for them. Setting short-term goals can help both you and your mentee identify tangible benefits from the relationship.
- Challenge excuses. Mentors should push mentees to greater achievements than they might accomplish on their own. “As a mentor you should be helping your mentee honestly assess their performance,” writes Francis.
- Share your experiences. One of the big benefits that mentors can bring to a relationship is the value of their own experiences. Sharing those experiences—humbly—can provide important insights for mentees.
- Celebrate progress. Francis suggests ending conversations with your mentee by recapping their accomplishments. This can be a great way to reinforce wins and clearly convey the benefits of the relationship.
In the Harvard Business Review article, What the Best Mentors Do, Anthony K. Tjan points to some specific attributes of great mentors:
- They put the relationship before the mentorship. This should not be a “check the box” type of interaction, Tjan says. Instead, there should be “a genuine, intercollegial relationship between mentor and mentee.
- They focus on character rather than competency. An important role for mentors, says Tjan, is “to shape other people’s character, values, self-awareness, empathy, and capacity for respect.”
- Share optimism loudly, but stay quiet with their cynicism. While it’s important to push mentees to greater achievements that may be outside their comfort zones, it’s equally important to maintain optimism. Tjan shares his 24×3 rule for optimism: “Each time you hear a new idea, see if it is possible for you to spend 24 seconds, 24 minutes, or a day thinking about all the reasons that the idea is good before you criticize any aspect of it.”
- Are you more loyal to their mentee than to the company? This means that mentors should think about what’s best for their mentees from a career perspective which may mean that their next role might be with some other organization.
While mentors are important for any business professional, most will also benefit from having one or more sponsors who can pave the way for them to gain new experience and attain increasingly challenging positions throughout their careers.
How to Become a Better Sponsor
According to research by the Center for Talent Innovation, based on a study of 12,000 men and women in white-collar positions in the US and Britain, “sponsorship—unlike mentorship, its weaker cousin—makes a measurable difference in career progress.
Sponsors “advocate on their proteges’ behalf.” But, more than this, “sponsors go out on a limb” for their proteges—they risk their own professional credibility in support of those they sponsor.
EY’s white paper, The Corporate Sponsor as Hero offers five attributes that great sponsors have in common based on their research:
- They’re totally committed.
- They’re well-connected.
- They’re persistent.
- They’re willing to pave the way.
- They’re candid.
Whether serving as a mentor, a sponsor, or both, career professionals have ample opportunity to leave a legacy through their support and encouragement of colleagues in a wide range of positions. Make a commitment to continually improve the value of the role you play in the professional lives of those around you. Your support, encouragement, candid feedback and selfless recommendations can make a big difference for others—and for you.