It seems like every week a new article permeates Linked In or Facebook touting the importance of mentors in business. Most agree that it’s a good idea, but a common concern in thinking through how to benefit from this concept, is “How do I even begin to… ask someone to be my mentor?” And it can be a little awkward, especially if you aren’t prepared to be specific about what this relationship would entail. How often would you meet? What types of things will you discuss? Is there any way you can help your mentor? Common tips include: Be teachable, find common ground and interests, get on their calendar, be flexible in expectations, and open lines of communication. But what if no one comes to mind? And what role, if any, should the company you work for play in fostering these relationships?
A crucial part of finding a mentor is keeping expectations realistic. Your mentor may provide wonderful guidance, but may not be in a position to advocate for you or sponsor you in any way, especially if he or she works outside of your company. Several years ago, I learned to distinguish among these roles:
- Mentor: A mentor is a more holistic guide; their primary focus is coaching and developing. They know (to various degrees) your professional career history, and may possibly know some detail of your personal life. They offer advice on career goals, moves, and sometimes the political or soft side of navigating your industry. A mentor talks to you.
- Advocate: An Advocate’s primary focus is championing and representing you to others when you’re not in the room. They speak up for you and make sure your concerns are being heard and addressed. Advocates may talk to you as well.
- Sponsor: A sponsor is someone whose support you need for advancement. Their primary strength is in their ability to influence decision makers to benefit your career advancement. They have authority to elevate you.
As I’ve written about before, the Advocacy program within SEI is significantly helpful in adjusting to life within SEI. And I would certainly say that SEI Advocates fit and exceed the above definition (often taking on attributes of a Mentor and/or Sponsor as well). But in my time at SEI, what’s surprised me even more, has been the unofficial roles my coworkers have filled that have helped me even further.
When I started with SEI, several people reached out to me to offer guidance, suggest lunch, or just generally make sure I had everything I needed. This is a common occurrence at SEI, and something I’ve felt equally interested in doing with consultants who started after me. This isn’t the result of an initiative or internal program- it just happens. There are lots of reasons that SEI’s culture is inductive to this, but generally, there is a sense that if one consultant succeeds, we all do. This mindset naturally lends itself to employees harboring a sincere desire to support each other. And, in doing so, we become mentors for each other. Be it for a specific project, SEI as a whole, or your career in general, there always seem to be people interested in helping you find your way.
Most interestingly, though, has been the proliferation of what I would consider to be Sponsors. In some sense, a Sponsor is a high ranking superior with an impressive title and lots of connections. In a more relevant sense, though, a Sponsor can be someone who leverages their knowledge and strengths to further your skillset and fight for opportunities for growth for you. In my first project with SEI, a team member repeatedly stepped up to the plate to ramp me up on new software and technical concepts I wasn’t as familiar with. He never condescended or held over my head the time he was spending on these white boarding sessions and phone calls. He just… helped. He sponsored.
It is each of our responsibility to find Mentors, Advocates, and Sponsors in our own careers to ensure that we learn, grown, and advance. While many companies offer programs to aid employees in filling these roles, SEI is unique in that its culture ensures that, in addition to a structured Advocacy program, consultants themselves continually step up to the plate and enthusiastically act as Sponsors, Advocates, and Mentors. This offer of guidance (without title or often, credit) is part of what makes me happy to call SEI home.