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Career Pivot: The value of sponsors and mentors in finding your next career opportunity

You know when you are heading towards a career pivot at work when you feel that itchy feeling that tells you that you are at the top of your learning curve. But how do you know where to go next; should you be moving horizontally, leaping or simply job crafting? The answer could be provided by having a career mentor, or if you are especially lucky a career sponsor. So what's the difference between the two and how do you find and make the most out of such a relationship?

What is a mentor and a sponsor?

  • A mentor is a trusted adviser who can provide you with guidance through difficult situations and give you the benefit of their experience. They are also an important sounding board to allow you to think outside the box.

  • A sponsor on the other hand is someone who has a vested interest in you, to introduce you to new opportunities and stretch goals. They know the system and can use it to their, and your, advantage. Consequently, the majority of corporate sponsors are male.

I've been lucky enough to have experienced having been, and having had, both a mentor and a sponsor. Having just a mentor or a sponsor can be enough to help your career pivot but ideally you need to have both. You can have an experienced mentor who does not have the capacity to open doors for you or alternatively you can have a super interested sponsor who doesn't really have the time to provide a sounding board to your concerns and worries.

Before finding a mentor or a sponsor you need to do some pre-work

Before seeking out either a sponsor or a mentor it's important to know what you are looking for and a key way to doing that is understand your vision and values. Once you are clear on your values you will be more fully able understand your personal motivators are. This type of self understanding is key to getting the most out of having a mentor or a sponsor. Mentors and sponsors are not career coaches and are usually managers with limited discretionary free time to support others, so use their time wisely.

In particular if you are also looking for a sponsor it is doubly important that you are not only clear on your values but also your work vision. Sponsors need to know where you want to go next and how they can help you get there, so the clearer the guidance that you can give them the better. Below is my own work vision, which I use to guide my sessions with my career sponsor to help us decide where I should leap to next.

I, Rebekah Bostan will use my skills of innovation and stakeholder engagement, and my passion for customer satisfaction and strategic linking, to develop best in class data driven solutions while working in an environment that allows me to find balance.

Finding a mentor or a sponsor

The best place to start to find a mentor or a sponsor is in your existing workplace. Your organisation may already have an established mentoring scheme, or if you are really lucky a sponsorship program (though these are usually just for so called senior high performers). Alternatively a relevant affinity group in your company may hold networking events which might allow to you bump into your next mentor or sponsor. You could also increase increase your visibility across the organisation by volunteering for affinity group activities, which again will help you identify potential mentors or sponsors.

A final way to find a mentor or a sponsor is by building up your wider work network. It is important that in designing your network you include both women and men because as I already mentioned men still tend to be the predominant source of sponsorship within corporate organisations.

In my experience you need a bit of structure and a bit of luck to find the right mentor. I have used both my in company mentorship scheme as well as paying to join an external mentorship program. Through my work mentorship program I found an excellent mentor who subsequently became my sponsor, while I had a less favorable experience with the external paid for mentorship program, where I ended up as the mentor rather than mentee.

It's also important to not forget about building up a group of informal mentors, I call them my Board of Directors. I have curated my Board via informal networking inside and outside of my organistion and also in my role as the co-chair of my organisations Parents Network. I have one lady I go to when I have a specific issues about potential choices I need to make and another person who provides me with more generalized advice when I feel stuck or feel I'm going down a 'not-so-good-road' as Dr Seus would say.

By increasing my visibility within the organisation through my affinity group volunteering, accessing the formal mentorship program and also actively seeking to expand my work network I have been able to find the right mix of formal and informal mentors and sponsors for me. Everyone's mix will be different but you need to actively engage and experiement to find the right support to progress your career.

How often should you meet your mentor or sponsor?

Depending on your personality and that of your sponsor/mentor your meetings can be as formal or informal as you like. Your interaction can be at a set time each month or on an ad hoc basis when you need help. It probably helps to set up some initial formal meeting dates and then take your interactions from there. Bear in mind that any mentor or sponsor is also likely to be a busy manager so respect the time they are giving up to chat to you by being prepared. Do your homework and make use of their time wisely.

Possible outcomes of the mentor/sponsor relationship

So how can a mentor or sponsor help you with a career pivot;

  • They could help re-engage with your existing role by supporting your Job Crafting. By helping support changes to your motivation or the resources available to you your mentor/sponsor can help your work become more meaningful, increasing your job satisfaction and performance without even changing your role.

  • They could increase your job satisfaction by helping you to Manager Craft. A mentor should be able to help you engage in more constructive conversations around performance and progress with your manager.

  • They could help you find a new, more challenging or suitable, role inside or outside of your organisation. This is when a sponsor is most useful but a mentor can also help signpost you towards possible options.

So next time your feel you are getting itchy and moving towards a career pivot make sure you build up your work network and in particular focus on the support that could be available to you by having a career mentor or sponsor.

All opinions are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.


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