How do you find a mentor? Ask your boss, or other next-level-up leaders, for recommendations. Ideally, he or she will make an introduction for you. Consider leaders in organizations or functional areas that are of interest to you. Ask human resources whether there are any structured matching programs you can use. Keep an open mind-if you meet someone who feels like a person you could learn a lot from, ask.
When communicating with the mentor, express gratitude. Thank the person for her time and guidance. It sounds so basic, but it is not done often enough. Update the mentor. Mentors want to know what you end up doing, and why. If you take their time to get advice, let them know where the story goes. You want them to remain part of your story-not feel like someone used as a one-off. Mentors can provide unexpected perspective to inform and evaluate choices and help us appreciate current positions.
Be respectful about how much time you ask for. Some mentors may be willing to meet only once. Others may consider monthly, quarterly, or ad-hoc. It is common to meet for a few months or up to a year, then discontinue regular meetings (but stay in touch). Ask for her preference and defer to it. Meetings should be in a location convenient to the mentor-her office when possible. Schedule increments of one hour or less, no more than 30 minutes if by phone. I was surprised when a junior female employee asked me for frequent one-on-one coaching. The ask went too far. Sometimes a leader will take someone under his or her wing, but if you do not work in the same division or have related experience, make limited asks of the mentor.
Go to the mentors when you need advice, not frequently for small talk. Seek their guidance at key junctures. Burnt out? Overwhelmed? Considering applying for a new position or making a shift? Dealing with a troubling leader at the organization? Pregnant? Go ask questions at critical times. They will respond. You will get more out of laser-like sessions than generic talk.
For women, follow some basic protocols with male mentors. Meet in visible places that are not date-like. Glass-walled offices are good, if available, during the day. You cannot be too careful. Unfortunately, the optics can be misinterpreted easily, and many older men are hesitant to mentor women out of concern that they will be accused of inappropriate behavior, even when the mentoring is entirely genuine.
An expert shares: “A friend of mine was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a young woman he was closely mentoring and managing. He had done nothing wrong, but had failed to manage the optics. A few times he had walked out of the building while chatting with her before parting to their separate cars. A disgruntled employee filed a baseless human resources and ethics complaint. Luckily, it was dismissed based on lack of merit, but the reputational damage could have hurt his career, marriage, and family had it become widely talked about.”
If someone gives you harsh feedback, accept it and seek to “flip” the person to become your fan. Thank them. Complain to a friend privately. Realize it was a poorly delivered gift-the person was likely trying to help you. This is always wise even if hard, as you want to further your own development.
Appreciate the openness even when the advice is given awkwardly or harshly. This approach can turn a critic into a supporter, and enable you to address blind spots and whip yourself into shape more quickly than learning lessons the hard way over many years by figuring it out yourself. Utilize those willing to step outside the comfort zone for you. Such a critic may become an ally if she sees you listening and responding. You may need to take your time to absorb the harsh feedback before responding positively. Make yourself do it within a matter of weeks.
Sponsors and Champions
Sponsors and champions are different than mentors. A sponsor or champion is someone who will actually support you in an organization. Often, they are in your direct chain of command, or close to it. An effective champion who believes in your potential and capabilities can catapult your career years ahead. They can offer you visibility opportunities, put your name on lists for special training and access to resources, promote you, sell your value to other leaders, and take you along for the ride with their success. If you find champions, work hard for them, show your appreciation, and stay close to them as long as it makes sense.
A danger of relying too much on one sponsor is that if he or she retires, moves on, or becomes out of favor with the organization, you may be left hanging suddenly without support. It can happen very quickly. The behind-the-scenes advocacy that was done on your behalf may not have been obvious, but after the sponsor’s departure, you may notice that others begin to receive special opportunities while you are being sidelined. This happens frequently. So while it is a great thing if you find one, continue to cultivate strong contacts beyond the primary sponsor.
Sometimes, a sponsor is the person who hires you. She has a vested interest in your success. Other times, it could be someone you do great work for, or with whom you have a strong rapport. Leaders may seek to develop talent to eventually replace them and continue their legacy. If you show interest and aptitude for success in what they do-while also respecting their roles-this could be a driver.
How do you get a sponsor or champion? This is not typically a status that you ask for directly. It is earned, or happens naturally. Perhaps you ask for support for specific roles and opportunities, rather than as an overall relationship. At higher levels such as vice president there is a clear for need for direct support, especially if you are one of the only females, so it may be more typical to have open requests and discussions about these relationships. Do sponsor promising women and men when you have the chance to do so. It is rewarding to see their growth and success. If there are popular individuals in your organization who already have multiple sponsors, consider offering your support to a person with strong aptitude who has not been noticed or may benefit from some coaching or stretch assignments to further her career.