In 2014, I attended an interview at an internationally known marketing and advertising agency. I was still 2 months away from completing my full-time Public Relations post-graduate program but I had seen the job posting online and thought it would be perfect for me.
A few weeks later, I received an email to come in for an interview. I remember walking in and feeling nervous yet really confident. I knew my stuff, I had some great practical experience and I had my portfolio in hand to prove it.
The interview finished and then I was told something along the lines of…
“We’re really impressed by you and we’d love to offer you the job…but you’re still in school!”
I was crushed but yet I don’t really know what I was expecting as I still had 2 months left before I finished my program. I wasn’t about to “drop out” so close to the finish line either. So, they told me to keep in touch and email them when I finished school.
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Fast forward to being a few weeks away from finishing my program (thank goodness!) and I decided to follow up again to see if there were any open roles. I received a response shortly after from the hiring manager I had interviewed with and in a nutshell, she felt that I had so much potential and even though there weren’t any open positions, she wanted to share me with her network and if I’d be ok with that.
…Um, yes, of course!!
So, this woman who I had only met once (and talked to for no longer than an hour), sent out an email to her network saying how much potential I have and if they have any open roles, they need me on their team.
I didn’t know it then (I honestly just thought she was extremely nice!) but I know it now, this woman was a sponsor – a very important person that everyone needs in their network in order to truly succeed.
We often throw around the word “network” without much context or thought to the roles that the people in our network play yet there are 3 key ones that you absolutely need to get ahead – allies, mentors and of course, sponsors.
Here’s who they are and why you need all 3 for professional success:
According to this Zen Workplace article, an ally is someone who proactively offers help and support to help you achieve your goals.
An ally goes beyond just a friend you have at work. You’re able to have open and honest conversations about salaries and career advancement because they genuinely have your best interests at heart. They will also work to push forward your ideas and ensure your work is noticed. If you work in a male-dominated field, it’s also recommended that you also have a few male allies that you can trust to really boost the trajectory of your career. These male allies should recognize their privilege within your workplace and industry and genuinely be committed to helping you succeed as well.
By definition, a mentor is an experienced and trusted advisor. As described in this Levo League article, mentors set aside dedicated time in order to offer up career advice and share wisdom and experiences to their mentees.
I’ll be honest – I’ve never had a mentor. Sure, I’ve had people here and there that have set aside time to share their insight with me but never a formal mentor/mentee relationship. I know that a lot of importance is placed on mentorship and I’m sure there is lots of value in it but typically they can only take you so far. They succeed at boosting your knowledge and confidence by sharing their experience and insight but I’ve learned that sometimes there can be a gap between equipping you with this knowledge and actual opportunity.
A sponsor is someone that is willing to put their name and reputation on the line to vouch for you. They share you with their entire network to help you land opportunities.
According to Jo Miller, Founder of Be Leaderly, “A sponsor sees how your strengths could add value in areas of the business you’ve not yet had exposure to. Due to their influence, sponsors can open more career doors than you ever thought possible. And they can see a vision for your career that is bigger than you could ever imagine.”
The interesting thing about sponsors is that you don’t necessarily find them – they find you. After all, I definitely did not know that my interview would result in me having a sponsor!
As this article in Forbes says, “finding a sponsor is far more difficult than finding a mentor. Generally, young professionals choose their mentors, whereas sponsors choose young professionals to bet on.”
Author Bonnie Marcus talks about this idea of being “sponsor ready”. Essentially, this means you have to consistently perform at a high level and always make a good impression so that you’re a person that a potential sponsor would have no worry about associating themselves with you. Think about this the next time you go for an interview. Even if you don’t get the job, if you make a positive enough impression, you could end up with a valuable career sponsor.
Now, you may be wondering – what value does a sponsor get? Well, it’s a 2-way street. You get access to a potentially hidden network and they become known as someone who has access to high-potential people. They become a valuable asset to the people in their network.
If you’re lucky, you’ll have people that fill multiple roles. In fact, that’s probably the best case scenario to have – someone that not only dedicated time to share their insight but believes in your potential so much that they vouch for you in front of their network.
But, remember – it’s important to pay it forward so just as you seek to fill the roles of allies, sponsors and mentors in your life, look for opportunities for you to play these roles as well so you can make a lasting impact on someone else’s career.