Mentors Support You, but Sponsors Propel You

Last week as I was wrapping up a college workshop I’d facilitated, I shared what’s always a fun discussion – the mistakes I’ve made and lessons they’ve taught me over a couple of decades of work. One that always makes me smile is one of my first boss’s words of wisdom. He told me, “Success is based on three things: Luck, sponsorship and timing.”

At the time I brushed it off. I’d grown up hearing that success was about working hard, not something as uncontrollable as luck or timing. And sponsorship I chalked up as being synonymous with colleagues thinking highly of you. In retrospect I realize how naive I’d been.

Looking back, I can see how luck and timing worked both for me and against me at different times. But sponsorship was something I didn’t fully appreciate. The impact of a true sponsor is invaluable, and is different than those of mentors, which tend to get a lot more press.

There’s lots written about the power of mentors – and mentors are indeed great to have. I’ve mentored more than a hundred people in my career and while I care about their success, I’m not invested in it.

A sponsor, though, is different. As pointed out by Heather Foust-Cummings at Catalyst Research Center for Equity in Business Leadership, “A mentor will talk with you, but a sponsor will talk about you.” In other words, they’re the people who will be advocating for you even when you’re not in the room.

Because of this, sponsoring also means a sponsor is putting her or his reputation on the line – so sponsorship has to be earned. As Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of “Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor” puts it: “A senior person is not going to go out of their way unless you have proven your worth.” While sponsors are key in moving up the corporate ladder, Hewlett adds that “There is no way up in any career where you don’t need sponsorship,” says Hewlett. “At the end of the day, you need a powerful person to open doors for you.” So sponsors are at least as important to entrepreneurs as they are to those working their way up through big companies.

Twenty years after my boss shared his wisdom, I experienced one of the most visible examples of sponsorship I’ve benefited from in my career. My most recent sponsor, Orlando Harris, director of Career Services and Leadership Development at San Francisco State University, was one of our very early Journeous clients and exemplified what great sponsors do. He saw the connection between our solution and its ability to move the needle on key initiatives he and his team were focused on. But he recognized that his customers – SFSU students – wouldn’t get the full benefit if he implemented it in the traditional manner.

Instead of walking away, he engaged faculty partners in coming up with a shared solution. He championed getting our proposal funded and approved internally. He kept in close contact with the faculty and students who were part of Journeous to get their perspective. He proactively shared the early outcomes we were seeing with school leadership, reinforcing early support and generating interest from other faculty members.

As all sponsors do, Orlando took a calculated risk. In the process, we’ve built a mutual respect and appreciation for the other’s work and a true partnership that I think he would agree has benefited us both. Not every sponsor has the vision or the commitment to create meaningful change that Orlando has. But if you want to increase your odds of finding and developing a great sponsor, here are five ways you can do so. While luck has its place, you might not want to rely on it when it comes to developing great sponsors.

Our Advice: Don’t Follow Everyone’s Advice

I visited my mom over the weekend who’s now firmly in the grip of her Parkinson’s disease. As it’s continued its progression, my sister and I have reminded her, often, to exercise, since that’s been shown to have some benefit against the uphill battle she faces. She’s gone along reluctantly in an effort to slow down the rapid march of the disease. But as my sister says, she’s now in the twilight of her life. When we’re honest, we all realize that any change will have a limited impact.

At dinner I encouraged her to take one of the trainers from the gym up on his offer to help her use a special walker-type contraption to make water exercise easier, since that’s the one type she’s usually up for. She nodded that it would be a good idea… but something told me that she was just placating me. So I said to her, “Really? Do you honestly think it’s a good idea? And are you really going to do it?” And she looked at me, paused the couple of minutes it now takes her to respond, and said, “No.”

My initial reaction was to be annoyed. But I thought for a minute and realized that it took guts for her to claim what none of us wanted to hear. She wanted something different for herself than we did, and she was going to do what she wanted to do. I realized in that moment that to try to convince her otherwise would make me a hypocrite.

We talk to young adults regularly about the power of owning their own values, interests and skills and making decisions that align with them. Sometimes those decisions are in line with what others around them want them to pursue – and often they’re not. Their friends, family and bosses are largely well meaning – they want what they think is best for them.

Having the courage to own what’s important to you when it’s different than what those around you believe takes bravery, strength and clarity.

While listening to guidance and insight from those who care can be invaluable, sometimes it’s useful to remember that guidance and feedback is a gift – and comes with a gift receipt. For my mom, she’ll benefit from less nagging – which isn’t bad. But I think about what happens when all of us get to make decisions about jobs and careers that fit with us. When we balance listening to those we trust with putting at least as much trust in our own intuition. As Beyonce said: “Don’t try to lessen yourself for the world. Let the world catch up to you.”

Journeous and Athlete Story Talk Transition: Re-find Yourself After Sports

We recently sat down with Anja Bolbjerg of Athlete Story, a business focused on helping athletes transition from sports to new careers.

Pam was joined by former elite squash player Katherine Johnson (who we were honored to speak with at the Miami  EY Women Athletes Business Network), and discussed the art of story telling and transitions: what should you do next?

It’s targeted to athletes, but has advice anyone looking to make a transition in careers can follow. Check it out!

How to Uncover Your Values

At dinner recently, my husband asked about a workshop I’d facilitated, which led my daughter to ask about the specifics of what we’d talked about that day. My twins are now past the age where I can get away with a one-liner response they don’t understand. In true Elizabeth Warren fashion, “She persisted.” What exactly did we do in the workshop?

I shared that we were working with participants to uncover their values, and then capture them in the stories they tell about themselves. Stories she understood. Values, not so much. My daughter’s questions made me realize just how abstract personal values can be. Continue reading

Five Ways to Prototype Your Career

Our regular Friday movie night at our house will be disrupted next week as my daughters will be involved in a fifth grade fundraiser at school. Their school has an outdoor education program that gets rave reviews but is also a bit pricey, so one of the moms came up with a creative approach: run a 100% student-run fundraiser by hosting a movie night at school. The kids learn all the skills involved in hosting a fundraiser, while raising the money to pay for the field trip. Some kids are in charge of event marketing, some pricing the tickets and concessions, and my personal favorite: some are ‘bodyguards’ to make sure none of the kids who have been dropped off by their parents escape.

It struck me that our daughters and their classmates are lucky because they get early exposure to what we like to call “Career Prototyping”- an activity very near and dear to us at Journeous. Continue reading

How to Prototype Your Career

“Experience is the teacher of all things.”

Julias Ceasar was definitely on to something with this famous phrase. There’s no substitute for getting your hands dirty — the best way to learn something is to try it for yourself. Sure, you can read everything on the internet, ask for advice from friends, or even consult an expert, but you won’t know for sure how you feel about an experience – a new restaurant, a tourist attraction, or even as we’re going to discuss here, a new job – until we actually try it. Continue reading

When Anything is Possible

Can you remember a time when you believed you could choose any career you wanted? Most of us have had ‘reality’ get in the way of that belief. But at ten, it’s a lot less complicated.

My daughter asked me to edit her class assignment this morning. She was tasked with a creative assignment and had to write her own “legend.” When I read it, it reminded me how simple it could be to create our own paths, to choose the things we believe fit us. And perhaps we’re our own worst enemies in letting those beliefs come true. Continue reading

Passport to Meaning (plus a FREE giveaway)

Last week I reconnected with a former colleague who I always liked working with. She could take on almost anything sent her way. But she said it was getting to be a grind – with each project she was becoming more and more miserable. She COULD do the work but she didn’t WANT to. What’s more, she has a degree in biology, but couldn’t figure out what she would be “qualified” to do with it. Continue reading

The Masks We Wear

Something strange happened this Halloween at our house. Trick or treaters were more interested in gummies, Nerds and mini Gobstoppers than chocolate candy. I know this because unlike last year when our daughters passed on trick or treating so they could hand out candy, this year they decided to get back out there. Having created some group costumes with friends, this year was more about the social part of the holiday than the sugar part.

At the end of the night, our house was where they and their friends returned to to count their candy and engage in the inevitable trading.

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Striking the Perfect Pitch

Friday night at our house is movie night. Which you might think would mean we’re up to date on the latest. You’d be wrong. Our 10 year olds far prefer seeing movies they’ve seen many times before… and so the family polling this past Friday resulted in a victory for Pitch Perfect 2 (often it’s a tie between the second and third in the a capella series).  

While I usually look forward to the singing (seriously, how is this possible without instruments??) this time a different scene struck me. It’s when the Bellas are at the final night of the Retreat, sitting around the campfire. They’re all within a month or so of graduation and Becca, like lots of future grads, talks about all the pressure she’s putting on herself, her worry about failing and belief she could figure it out on her own – but realization that it’s tougher than she thought.

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