I frequently get asked about mentorship as a senior leader. Whether that’s a request to participate in a program to mentor a specific group of rising leaders or requests from an individual to serve as a personal mentor, I have received them all. My experiences have taught me that people often obsess over the idea of mentorship yet neglect the actions of mentorship. This is unfortunate, because it is in the action where the magic happens.
People are often surprised because I don’t have a single mentor. However, I have been mentored through role modeling and observation. I have learned by observing those I respect. I initiate dialogue, I ask questions of those I trust and I seek the advice of those whose experiences I can draw from.
In a more traditional sense, mentorship in action looks like a dialogue where all parties are both teachers and students, where each person gives as much as they receive. Another aspect of mentorship in action is identifying the right people for you. We need mentors in all facets of our professional lives. One mentor may guide you early in your career, another may guide you on your leadership journey and yet another may guide you in your development as you advance. Even more important, is understanding the difference between a mentor and a sponsor.
Mentors speak with you. Sponsors speak for you. People often confuse the two. Your sponsor helps you create that path of success. Their influence promotes you, gets you in the room, gets you a seat at the table and simply takes you places you usually cannot get to on your own.
For women and people of color, understanding the difference between mentors and sponsors is crucial to career advancement. Having the right experience for a given role is important. However, contrary to popular belief, your work alone will not speak for itself. Your work does not have a voice, but your sponsor has a voice that others take action on.
Many women and people of color would like to be mentored and sponsored by people who look like them. As a black woman, I can attest to the comfort found in relationships with people who look like me. However, in Corporate America, the fact exists that there are only so many people that look like us in leadership positions, which impacts who can be considered as mentors and sponsors. My advice is to get comfortable sharing who you are, your whole self, with others. Step out of the comfort zone so you can build the strong relationships that positively impact your career. I’m sure you’ll find that these relationships enrich other facets of your life as well.
Likewise, women and people of color need allies, people who don’t look like us, to help us move along our path of success. I encourage our allies to speak up, lean in, ask questions and don’t shy away from reaching out to underrepresented individuals.
What’s exciting is that technology can help. At Verizon, we take pride in connecting people to what matters to them. Through our smartphones, and a reliable network, we can do just about everything from the palm of our hand. Using technology can be an equalizer, giving us access to a much broader network of people than is physically possible. Social media allows us to meet new people and stay abreast of trending topics that spark virtual networking. It helps us keep up with old friends and our posts allow us to learn a little more about each other. Video communications are now available in our phones, tablets and computers and they’re featured in so many apps. We’ve used video to meet virtually for coffee, celebrate milestones and often to simply catch up as a means for face-to-face interaction, especially this past year when we couldn’t physically be together.
No matter your role - mentor, mentee, sponsor, ally - we all play a part in creating paths to success for the talent we encounter. If we’ve learned anything over the past few months, we’ve learned how technology allows us to stay connected and the importance of maintaining existing and developing new relationships.