Mentors are useful. Sponsors and champions can do more for your career

I regularly hear from young professionals searching for mentors. They typically view that person as a wise leader with a big network who can help them transition into a new role or company. My advice is to look for more.

Mentors are great and play an important role in any career. Everyone should have several mentors that touch different elements of their career over time. But there are hard limits to what a mentor can provide. As Sam Samad, CFO of Illumina, observes, mentors can give you a little advice and help you along. But they are not really invested in your success. What you really want is a sponsor or, better yet, a champion. These are people who take a bet on you and even link their career success to yours. They may start as mentors, but they grow into much more. Here is the difference:

A mentor is typically passive, an attractive feature of the relationship. You can and should cultivate multiple mentors that can be sounding boards, as they offer few expectations and demands on your time. Many organizations have formal mentoring programs that match mentor and mentee. In formal programs, mentors may be at the same company, but mentors need not be at the same organization or even the same industry. While such matched mentors can be useful, the best mentors are ones you identify and reach out to gain commitment.

Good mentors provide advice, career guidance, and (sometimes) a few useful introductions. But the relationship usually ends there. With a loose commitment and little skin in the game, a mentor is not likely to fully open his or her network or provide serious introductions. The quality of an introduction is a measure of trust, and passive mentors have little reason to trust. The best mentors take some initiative, but mentees must expect to be proactive. Waiting for the mentor to track you down will certainly lead to minimal interaction. It is your job to reach out and setup the next meeting or coffee. Most importantly, because mentors rarely see you in action, they are not able to act as an advocate or coach.

Sponsorship is always earned. Sponsors see you in action and grow to appreciate the value you add. They often start as mentors, but sponsors can’t be directly recruited. Rather, they find you. You can improve your odds of landing a great sponsor by working on projects where they can see you perform. Over time, they will often see things in you that you don’t see in yourself. And they come to see you will not let them down in a crunch. Sponsors want you on their projects and in their organizations. They push you ahead and recommend you for choice assignments that will move your career along. Sponsors are your ears and voice in the room when you are not there. They ensure you receive credit for your achievement and promote your work. And they give you feedback so you can improve and navigate the organization.

In rare cases, sponsors can grow into champions. A champion sees your value and is willing to take personal career risks on you. They bet on you for projects and eventually come to see their own career success as linked with yours. Your success is their success. As they move up, you move up with them. The partnership can span decades and even careers. Samad notes that when that happens, you are “joined at the hip” – it is a big commitment on both sides and not without its own risks. Such partnerships are career-defining, and since most careers can only support one or two champions, managing those relationships is very important.

To hear more from my interview with Sam Samad (CFO of Illumina – a dominant manufacturer of DNA sequencing equipment) watch the video below. Sam shares his thoughts on the mentor/ sponsor/champion model, the promise of DNA sequencing, and tips for successful careers in healthcare.

Leadership Notes is a blog and video series on leadership.  Through interviews with leaders from both the private and public sector, Johnson examines key leadership issues like empowerment, team development, and cultural dexterity.  The blog also addresses topics such as learning from failure, the importance of friendship, and the role leaders play in developing organizational culture.

You can access the entire library of entries on LinkedIn.

Leave a Response