Do You Have Mentors and Sponsors?

A guide for how to pick people to help you up the corporate ladder.

Posted: 05/15/2013 06:18 PM EDT

One reality of professional life is, no one makes it to the top by themselves. To rise through the ranks and break the proverbial "glass ceiling," two things must happen: First, you will need people to guide you along the way. Secondly, someone already on the other side of that glass ceiling has to see your value and pull you through! For the sake of simplicity Mentors are those who "guide" you through, and Sponsors are those who "pull" you through.

No matter how smart, good-looking, well dressed, or even hardworking you are, without the benefit of Mentors and Sponsors, your full career potential will not be realized. Mentors come in all shapes, sizes, and yes, even colors. Furthermore, there are various types of mentors.

Organizational Mentors are those who help you understand the culture and political landscape of the company you work for. Organizational Mentors are essential when you are new to the organization as they can help you learn the do's and don'ts of the culture.

Situational Mentors are those who provide a unique skill that you need to develop. Perhaps you are weak when it comes to understanding financial concepts? In this case you would seek out someone who is a whiz in finance to help develop you in this area.

Another key mentoring role is what I call the Wise Mentor. The Wise Mentor is typically someone who is outside of your organization, and has tremendous business maturity. They have "been there" and "seen that"! These mentors serve as your sounding board. You share career dilemmas, ask for career advice, and basically utilize their wisdom to keep you on track.

Sponsors, on the other hand, serve one main purpose: to represent and recommend you for key roles, assignments and opportunities. The bad news is, while you may ask someone to mentor you, you can't ask someone to sponsor you! In a nutshell, you choose your Mentors, but Sponsors have to choose you! This is key because the Sponsor is putting his or her reputation on the line whenever they recommend you. They will not run the risk of tarnishing their brand for someone they don't have total confidence in. While you may not be able to ask to be sponsored, there are some things you can do to attract a Sponsor:

1. Be a Consistent Performer: It's not enough to have one good year at work; you need a track record of success. Potential Sponsors are always on the hunt for those who deliver consistent performance.

2. Be Visible: Know who the key leaders are in your organization and look for opportunities to rub elbows with them. Maybe at a company meeting, or company outing? No one will sponsor you, if they don't KNOW you!

3. Be a Team Player: Sponsors like to support those who are more focused on the organizations success, than their own. This doesn't mean that your focus is all about the company. Rather, you should manage your brand in such a way that the perception is, you win when the organizations wins. Remember, there is no "I" in TEAM!

Finally, don't limit yourself to seeking Mentors and Sponsors who look like you! Be open and willing to receive guidance, direction and support from anyone who is genuinely will to share it.

Keith Wyche is president of ACME, a SUPERVALU Company and Author of "Good is Not Enough," the guidebook for minorities of all backgrounds who aspire to reach the top of the corporate ladder.

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(Photo: Inti St Clair/Getty Images)

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