Mentors are an important part of a young employee’s professional development. Most large companies with standard training programs and incoming “classes” of new professionals have formalized mentorship programs in which a more senior employee is paired with a new, starry eyed one. Mentorship arrangements or programs are an easy sounding board, but are not necessarily the most natural relationships and do not often appear later in your career.
The purpose of having a mentor is two-fold: 1. To have a role model whom you admire and perhaps hope to emulate; and 2. to be able to seek sage advice from those who have experience, and to learn from the mistakes of those who have come before you. A mentor is most often someone you do not currently work with directly, and who can offer a fresh perspective on a circumstance in which they have no stake.
The concept of a mentor is not exclusive to the professional realm; indeed most people have mentors and champions who aid in their personal decisions as well.
Regardless of the context, I feel strongly that the mentor/mentee relationship must be organic.
I hear stories of new professionals emailing more senior people, often without much context or even an introduction, and ask “will you be my mentor?” This habit is cringe-worthy. There is very little incentive for the other party to respond favorably, and there are few circumstances in which this kind of relationship could be natural. How do they know that they want to invest the time and energy getting to know the junior person, and what benefit will it have for them? Very few people have enough time to give the kind of energy needed to become a valuable mentor without thinking twice.
So how to reach out to a mentor? Find a meaningful way to engage with a professional you admire. If it’s a senior person at the company, or someone whose job you find interesting, instead of asking for coffee, ask to help with a project. Demonstrating that you are capable of completing a task, dependable, and willing to go above and beyond the day-to-day will impress almost anyone. In addition, by asking intelligent, thought-provoking questions, that person has the ability to not only gauge how you approach problem solving but also feels depended upon and can walk you through the process. That very act creates a mentor, and then it becomes both parties’ responsibilities to maintain the relationship.
Sponsors, on the other hand, are a type of mentor who seek talented individuals and help promote their talents by bringing them up the corporate ladder. They take an active role in their interactions with the more junior individual and make it their responsibility to ensure that person’s professional success. Sylvia Ann Hewlett coined the concept of a professional sponsor in her book Forget A Mentor, Find A Sponsor, which sparked a dialogue around the value of a more senior professional and their influence on others’ successes.
While mentors can often have an intangible (yet important) effect on your career, sponsors are able to directly move you in the direction you want to go. I would argue that these connections are more valuable, but again the relationship must be organic in order to be successful. I could write a whole blog post on the importance of sponsorships to professional development.
I have been lucky to have both mentors and sponsors who have brought me along on various professional journeys. The relationships have all been cementing by patience, time, hard work, following up and connecting on something deeper than “will you be my mentor?” And eventually, I hope to be successful enough to perpetuate the cycle on both sides of the table.