I’ve written about the value of relationships to a leader, particularly those critical sponsorship and mentorship roles. As more and more talk turns to the value of a sponsor, and it is critical, it’s important to revisit the importance of a mentor as you lead and are led.
Sponsors may lay their political capital on the line to get you the promotion or next opportunity, likely because they’ve seen you produce in the past, but mentors serve a deeper and more fundamental role.
A sponsor may open the door for the next step up the ladder, but the mentor asks, do you even want to be climbing this particular ladder?
I have had both mentors and sponsors in my life and now I serve as both as well. And as helpful as formal mentoring programs can be to develop your ability to either serve as a good mentee or mentor, I have found the most impactful relationships have developed independent of a program as a result of a connection made.
What worked in the organically grown mentor relationships best?
As a mentee, my ability to raise my hand and ask. When I started with a new company, I asked for a short visit with the head of the company when I visited the headquarter offices. This wouldn’t be possible at all companies, but at one like mine it was. She agreed and actually complimented me for asking. She said the younger men had all lined up when she was given the promotion, but she’d had few women approach her.
After asking for the meeting, I asked what worked. My first question was what did it take to have a successful career at the company? Nothing is more important than knowing what the leader envisions as the most valuable characteristics to possess to move the company forward.
My second, and last, question (her time was in high demand) was to ask what I could do to help her with any of her initiatives? I was a billable attorney at the time and offering to do non-billable work which would ultimately help advance her priorities in her new position of leadership was appreciated. It helped her and it helped me.
The most successful mentor relationships are those which help both the mentor and the mentee.
As a mentor, my availability has been appreciated. I have an incredibly busy calendar, but most mentees don’t need an hour and a half lunch for the issue they are facing. A 15 minute phone call to discuss a challenging team dynamic or a 30 minute coffee to hash out child care options can be even more valuable because you can squeeze those in within a week of the need.
Also, identifying those who are uncertain or struggling and reaching out to help not only helps the one directly receiving the mentoring but it improves the team and the company’s dynamic and ultimately performance. Many companies place a high premium on informal mentoring efforts because they realize it makes teams more cohesive and it improves the performance and attitude of the individuals being mentored.
A listening mentor will find the perspective she hears from her mentee can open her eyes to new ways of approaching challenges and engaging with people of different ages and cultures.
Keep an eye out for an opportunity around you. Give the relationship time to grow and start out with a simple question or offer to help. You’ll find it can develop into a friendship and an asset to your career.