A New Focus on Growth is Underway…Do I have Mentors and Sponsors in Place?
By Linda Keene Solomon, TalentNomics Inc. Board Member
Organizations have launched their plans to accelerate recovery from the pandemic and exploit new growth opportunities. With light beginning to shine, what can we do now to strengthen our relationships or build new ones with mentors and sponsors? Beyond daily work assignments and staying relevant in an unpredictable environment, is there more to do? Do professionals and entrepreneurs need to take networking seriously when non-essential interactions are discouraged or not allowed? These are questions most of us ask ourselves as we continue to navigate our new normal work environment. Upon interviewing 20 female professionals and entrepreneurs, all of them agreed mentoring relationships have continued to be necessary during the past year. Still, most have not invested the time to maintain them. “Aren’t my mentors just as, if not more, stressed and consumed as I am in terms of keeping their business or practice above water and thriving” is what I heard most often! Many interviewees do not think they currently have a career “sponsor” and questioned whether this is the right time to be concerned. The overwhelming response, “my organization is simply trying to make its plan.” Networking and visibility have dramatically changed during the past year. However, did we allow the pandemic to create a new limiting belief that one can’t effectively connect with mentors and sponsors? If you have not already abandoned this limiting belief, it is time to do so because the Post-Vaccination era has started!
The distinction between mentors and sponsors is often overlooked. A mentor typically engages with a mentee one on one, providing honest feedback, understanding of “unwritten rules”, and actionable guidance. A sponsor, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily interact often or provide ongoing coaching. Instead, their focus is on advocating on your behalf when decisions are being made. These decisions can positively impact your career and provide opportunities for development and advancement. Sponsors advocate when selection decisions are being made regarding promotions, new assignments, leadership roles, and other enriching experiences.
Mentoring relationships are just as meaningful; regardless of whether you or your entire organization are currently operating in an essential services, virtual or hybrid environment. Why? If we consider the purpose of mentoring, therein lies the answer. Mentors don’t deliver a roadmap on a silver platter, but they do provide critical coaching and advice along the way so that one can make thoughtful decisions. They encourage us to concentrate on our strengths and identify ways to harness these strengths. Mentors point us towards facing our challenges and limiting beliefs and lend valuable coaching to help us overcome them. Mentors are great listeners, and during these unprecedented times, each of us has needed great listeners! So, what are some practical actions one can take to maintain and benefit from mentoring relationships during the pandemic and as we enter the Post Vaccination era?
- Schedule Audio, Video, our Safe “Outdoor” Mentor “Check-ins”;
- Engage Mentors in a “Recovery Priorities and New Opportunities Discussion”; ObtainUpdates from your Mentors and be Prepared to Share your Ideas;
- Identify Mentor Interest Areas and Select those that you might Engage in or Support.
Beyond cultivating mentoring relationships, attracting and checking in with “sponsors’ is essential for professionals and entrepreneurs at all levels. In the pandemic environment, many of us are under the false impression that organization decision-makers are not focusing on promotions and selecting individuals for new positions and opportunities. This impression is absolutely false! Navigating an unpredictable external environment with evolving and changing needs demands that management constantly thinks about new roles and positions. As professionals and entrepreneurs, we want to be “top of mind” for opportunities as they arise; some are visible, and others will remain invisible to us, but not to sponsors! Sponsors are sometimes known, and in many cases, unknown. They do share a common characteristic – applying their influence and personal credibility within their decision-making circles to position those they are endorsing successfully.
How does one attract a sponsor when it is not clear who might be an able and willing advocate? Initially, it is important to recognize that your manager or supervisor may or may not be a potential sponsor. As described earlier, a sponsor must be a credible influencer within the organization’s decision-making group – often a very tightly defined group of individuals. Each of us must make an effort to understand how decisions are made within our organizations and the organizations that support us if we are entrepreneurs. This understanding will help us identify potential sponsors. Next, recognize that in many organizations COVID has presented a silver lining opportunity as far as “sponsorship” is concerned. Not only are there new opportunities on the horizon originating from the focus on business recovery, but during the past year, the sponsorship playing field has been leveled. Attracting sponsors through more traditional interactions has not always been possible. Interactions at sporting events, after work, happy hours, or conversations in the men’s room were few and far between, if at all, creating more of an equal opportunity for men and women to attract sponsors! It is not too late to take action! However, the time is now to focus on developing and executing one’s personal plan to build sponsorship support. So what are the magical steps to having a key decision-maker in your organization advocate for you at the right time for the right opportunity? Yes, it sounds complicated and next to impossible to orchestrate or make happen. After all, isn’t the fact that someone believes in you and your potential a personal choice? The answer is an unequivocal “yes.” However, each of us has the opportunity to influence the heart and minds of others. If we don’t, then we don’t exist to potential sponsors, or their perceptions are influenced by others – not us.
So, once we accept that the playing field has been leveled, what’s next? In an extremely small organization, the only actual available sponsor might be the Executive Director, CEO, or Owner! In this case, you can execute actionable steps to ensure your potential sponsor better understands your strengths. In a mid-size to large organization, potential sponsors can exist in many different areas and levels of the organization – this is good news! For entrepreneurs, sponsors are likely individuals in organizations that can provide network and resource access. If you do not believe you have someone advocating for you who has “a seat” at the decision-making table, mentors can provide great coaching on how you “attract” a sponsor. Often, sponsors believe in your potential. Why? Because they have typically had an up-close and personal experience with you that won them over. They are “believers” in your abilities and skills and the impact you can make. They may have observed you in action, or maybe something you communicated or demonstrated led them to believe you have a quality the organization needs to be successful. Hopefully, you are getting the picture.
Beyond a heads-down get the job done approach, you must let potential sponsors periodically experience you in some meaningful way. Therefore networking remains a core priority to focus on even now before returning to the office—network with those who can help you identify your organization’s recovery priorities. Discuss the types of programs and initiatives that will likely be underway during the coming months. Beyond networking, design your plan to contribute to one or more of these priority areas. Reflect on your strengths and how you can best make a measurable impact, demonstrating your personal brand to potential sponsors. Whether they read or hear your words, observe you interacting with customers or employees, see you in action during a meeting, or interact with you one-on-one or in a group setting. Your best chance of attracting a sponsor is for them to experience you. Think and act beyond your daily routine!
In the Post-Vaccination environment, organizations are focused on accelerating their recovery as well as exploiting new opportunities. In this way, COVID has provided new opportunities to attract sponsors. However, one must recognize every opportunity has a window, and it is essential to act while the window is opening up. As the new Post-Vaccination era ramps up and previous sponsorship opportunities have been disrupted by our virtual environment, there are new emerging opportunities to demonstrate your talents to rising new and existing sponsors. Activate your networking plans, demonstrate your brand in new priority areas, and refresh your mentoring relationships to ensure you are fully aware of the emerging environment, any unwritten rules, and how to best position yourself for success!