The fantasy of a self-made career

No one wants the “needy” label. We all love self-made heroes—the great American success stories where individuals overcome adversity and succeed alone. Business is no different. We celebrate the trailblazing executives who seemingly succeed without any help. But believing that myth could ruin your career. To those who think they can do it alone, Larry Quinlan, Deloitte Global Chief Information Officer, bluntly states, “you will not succeed.”

Everyone needs trusted people to provide career advice and help them make good decisions. Friends, family, mentors, sponsors, champions, and personal boards all have a role to play in shaping career decisions. Over the past few months at Owen, speaker after speaker touched on important roles people played in their career success. The message was simple—everyone needs help. But another underlying lesson also emerged—it is important to understand the distinction between the different roles people play in helping you forward. Stephanie Gallo, Chief Marketing Officer for the E. & J. Gallo Winery, reminded us of the importance of not confusing mentors with sponsors. “There is a difference between a mentor and sponsor,” she noted. “In your career, you need both…(but) they are absolutely different.”

Mentors offer advice, perspective, and ideas to solve a business challenge. They challenge you, help with developmental skills, and give you tips and tricks to up your game.

A sponsor is someone who can advocate for you when you are not in the room. These are rarely the same person.

Quinlan pushed the concept even further, noting that careers are “a team sport, and you need help.” He believes this is a particularly important idea for underrepresented groups, because of the strong desire to succeed without seeking the help of others. “Very often we become trapped in this construct that we should do it on our own,” he said. In tracing his own amazing career, Quinlan illustrated that at every pivotal point, “there was someone who helped me get there.” His advice? Build trusted relationships with sponsors who can help you and acknowledge that you need them. That is the critical step—“you have to be willing to accept help.”

In an earlier blog post based on a conversation with Sam Samad (CFO of Illumina), I noted that sponsors can’t be directly recruited like mentors, but rather must be earned. They need to see you in action and grow to appreciate the value you add. You can improve your odds of landing a great sponsor by working on projects with them. Importantly, by working together, they will see you are dependable and go the extra mile to make the team successful. Over time, sponsors will want you on their projects and in their organizations. Then sponsors become your ears and voice in the room when you are not there. They ensure you receive credit for your achievements and promote your work. Most importantly, they push you ahead and recommend you for choice assignments that will move your career along. The key to facilitating them is to build the relationship and allow them to help you.

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.

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