The Joys (and Occasional Challenges) of Mentoring and Sponsoring

by Gloria Feldt on September 1st, 2011
in 9 Ways Blog, Heartfeldt Leadership Advice, Leadership, No Excuses, Personal Relationships, Workplace and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A “Heartfeldt” THANK YOU to everyone who read and commented on my virgin column on leadership at BlogHer Career. Your lively responses, challenges, and questions affirm that leadership issues are high on the agenda.

Fork in the Road courtesy of Debra Condren, author of "Ambition Is Not a Dirty Word"

Hands down the hottest topic in questions this past two weeks was mentoring. Such as:

What’s the relationship between mentoring and fostering leadership capacity in women? Mentoring compared to sponsorship? How do you get a mentor and cultivate a mutually beneficial relationship? How to lead, mentor, and retain high performing employees? How to get a mentor or be a mentor when you’re a consultant or an entrepreneurial business of one?

Great questions all, threading into two major categories around which there are many stories and studies to share:

• Finding, choosing, and effectively using a mentor/sponsor
• Being a mentor/sponsor

Sponsors and mentors: Both Needed
The recent study from Catalyst, an organization that for forty years has researched and recommended ways to bring women to parity in the workplace and on corporate boards of directors, generated buzz by distinguishing between mentors and sponsors. A mentor gives advice and support—very important assets to anyone seeking to rise or accomplish things in the world. We all need mentors, and we all should be mentors.

But according to Catalyst, if women want to break through the remaining thick walls, sticky floors, or glass ceilings—however you choose to characterize what keeps women stuck at 18% of top leadership positions across all sectors–we have to kick it up a notch.

Female employees who work hard and play by the rules are often overlooked when it comes to plum assignments and big promotions…Effective sponsorship is critical to accelerating a woman’s career—from getting her noticed by senior-level executives to being considered for her company’s top jobs.

A sponsor does just that, proactively giving you a leg up, a referral, a strategic vision for the long haul of the career trajectory.

Do you have both? Do you do both?

Finding, choosing, effectively using mentors and sponsors
Entrepreneur Andrea March, cofounder of the Women’s Leadership Exchange (a great resource) advises: “I’d Google and e-mail someone else who has done the same kind of business, say I’m just starting out in the business and I want to ask what were the challenges. I would network and join organizations, go to women’s blogs, and ask did you do a business plan, how did you finance? Communicate your struggle and do not be embarrassed about it–but there’s one thing I’d never lose sight of:

If you are passionate about starting your business, don’t ask anyone if they think you can. Ask how you would go about doing it. Not whether you should do it.

Brooke AxtellBrooke Axtell is a musician, an award-winning writer and founder of SHE: Survivor Healing and Empowerment whose example illustrates how mentoring and sponsoring relationships can evolve from informal to formal and back again. She found executive coach Debra Condren’s book Ambition is Not a Dirty Word and says it caused her to experience a powerful shift in her perspective on ambition.

“I saw how I rejected even the word “ambitious” because of gender socialization and all the negative associations, particularly equating ambition with selfishness and the exploitation of others. I sent Debra a note to thank her for her book.” Brooke said.

Then Debra discovered she loved one of Brooke’s songs and asked to use it for her audiobook. Brooke gave Debra use of the song and Debra gave Brooke several coaching sessions in exchange.

Brooke says: “We are still in contact and Debra continues to support my work. She sent me a book, a DVD and helpful referrals to support my personal and professional growth. I deeply value our connection.”

On her blog, Debra outlines a terrific a step-by step guide for forming your own informal Board of Directors. “No one can expect to reach their goals in isolation,” asserts Debra

The joy of finding and being a mentor or sponsor is evident from these stories, and even more joyful is that both roles can be practiced simultaneously. It’s also important to remember that mentorship isn’t necessarily forever. Nor is it even necessarily long term. You can have many mentors over the course of your life, and you have the opportunity to mentor others, plural, over time and as benefits each of you.

Being a Mentor or Sponsor
A companion tool to the Catalyst report, Sponsoring Women to Success, offers additional information on how high-performing employees can attract sponsorship, and how senior leaders can become effective sponsors.

Sometimes in the crush of our busy lives it seems like we can barely “lead ourselves” as Vickie Pynchon posed the conundrum in her question.

Judith SteinhartJudith Steinhart, EdD, Educator, Trainer, Mentor, Door Opener, Connector (she also led Columbia University’s popular health education website, Ask Alice, for 13 years)  acknowledges, “It’s not easy when you have a busy life, to think you can fit in someone else to mentor.” She told me about a young woman she met at a college peer health education program.

“She came up to me, and said, ‘I remember you from last year. I would love to intern with you.’ I liked her maturity, her positive energy, and her involvement in the group. She gave me her email address and I put it in my Mary Poppins giant carpet bag never to be seen again.”

The young woman pursued Judith by phone and e-mail, and rather than being offended, the signal Judith got was that this woman was serious. They began to work together on various projects.

That’s where the sponsorship kicked in. “I made a phone call to a program director about her and was told there were no jobs available. Later, she applied when there was a position. I gave her stellar references, and she was hired. Bravo for persistence and for mentoring! We both won.”

The unknown pundit who said, “A lot of people have gone further than they thought they could because someone else thought they could,” must have been talking about me.

Though I never had a formal mentor relationship, I was fortunate that some people saw in me qualities I didn’t see in myself and pushed me to take on commensurate responsibilities. Mildred Chaffin, my gruff, tough first boss was a sponsor, tapping me to develop one of Head Start’s first parent-child interaction programs. She later took the time, unasked, when she knew she was dying of breast cancer, to write the glowing letter of recommendation she knew I’d need to land jobs in the future.

I will always be grateful to her.

I’ve tried to pass mentoring and especially sponsorship forward to others more systematically than I sought them out for myself.

If you have a mentor, tell us about your experiences. How did you get your mentor? What are the benefit? The pitfalls?

If you are a mentor, what advice do you have for others in mentoring roles?

Have you kicked it up a notch into sponsorship, and if so, what have you gained or learned from that?  Where’s the joy in mentoring and sponsoring for you?

This column was originally posted on BlogHer Career, where you can join the discussion as well as ask any of your career questions!

Gloria Feldt

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

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