Pay it forward by being a mentor

“Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher.” – Japanese Proverb

If you reflect back on your career, you likely remember people who shared their knowledge and experience making a very real difference in decisions you’ve made both great and small. As mentors, their counsel, coaching and guidance left an indelible mark. Have you ever wondered about the origin of the word “mentor?” Where does it come from?

The term has its roots in Greek mythology. Mentor was an adviser and loyal friend to Odysseus, king of Ithaca. While Odysseus was away, Mentor helped raise Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, and in several situations the goddess of wisdom, Athena, assumed Mentor’s form providing counsel and support. Most importantly, Mentor built a relationship forged on trust, becoming Telemachus’ teacher and coach.

Not surprisingly, mentorship is seen as vital for development across many fields, and business is no exception. Formal mentoring programs abound and one only needs to Google “Mentoring in Business” to find 53 million unique results. Likewise, if you spend but a few minutes with an accomplished leader you will hear stories of influential mentors and coaches. Steve Reinemund, Dean of Business at Wake Forest University, attributes much of his success to mentors who preceded him. And Indra Nooyi, his successor as CEO at Pepsico, the $65 billion dollar consumer giant, acknowledges “I am the product of great mentor, great coaching.”

Yes, mentors provide advice, timely feedback on how to improve, serve as role models, share insights on how to navigate political currents and can help mentees gain access to networks. But is mentorship enough for high potential employees to realize their full potential? Recent research would indicate that mentorship is only half of the equation … especially for women and candidates with diverse backgrounds. Studies published by Catalyst, the nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding opportunities for women in business, and McKinsey and Company, the global management consulting firm, maintain there is an equally important role, the role of sponsorship.

What is sponsorship? In the Harvard Business Review article “Why Men Still Get More Promotions than Women,” the authors introduce the term sponsorship – essentially having someone not only provide coaching but also actively advocating for high potential employees when promotions or valuable developmental opportunities emerge.

Two essential criteria are identified for selecting sponsors:

  1. Sponsors have deep experience where high potentials have developmental gaps.
  2. Sponsors are “at the table” when challenging roles and jobs are assigned.

In the book, “Coaching and Mentoring” by Jane Renton, Nooyi shares the important role Reinemund played as she assumed a challenging role at Frito Lay, eventually preparing her for the top job at the $65 billion consumer giant. She relays the opportunity was “a great step up the corporate ladder,” and in a 2008 keynote at the Catalyst Awards in New York City she shared, “Let mentors find you. If you ask someone to be your mentor and they agree, then they probably aren’t going to push you as hard as someone who is grooming you for the next level.” She recognized the active role of the sponsor and Reinemund clearly met the criteria as he both challenged her and provided opportunity

Sponsors fill another role – again dating back to the time of Telemachus – that of protector. I can recall a time during an overseas assignment when the financial results of my unit were well below budget. I was deeply concerned but I also recall someone I perceived as a sponsor reassuring me that as long as we learned from the experience and worked diligently to improve, things would work out. I can only assume that there were some in my company ready to “help me find other opportunities,” and my sponsor provided damage control. I later moved on to increased responsibility and eventually several “C-suite” roles, and I am thankful for the support.

If you would like to learn more about mentorship and sponsorship join us at the Alverno College Forum on Tuesday, March 12, from 6:00-7:30 p.m. for “Mentorship and Sponsorship: A Need for Support and Advocacy.” The event is jointly sponsored by the National Society of Hispanic MBA’s, BizTimes, Northwestern Mutual, General Electric and the Alverno College School of Business. See this link for registration information.

Daniel Horton is the dean of the School of Business at Alverno College in Milwaukee.

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