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How to Find Mentors and Sponsors To Build a Lifetime of Learning

I entered the workforce during the days of shoulder pads and pin-striped power suits, when “climbing the corporate ladder” was a phrase that was used in conversation, and when the most powerful rolodexes ruled the world.

Today, when I look through the contacts in my iPhone, I think about the relationships stored there, what they represent, and what they mean to me, my life and my career growth.

My mentors gave me tough love, reality checks, advice and counsel at critical moments. None of them were formally approached to be my mentors. Instead, they were relationships that I cultivated over time and developed true chemistry and connection with so I could authentically ask them for advice. In each case, I also brought something to the table: a fresh eye on their company website, an objective rewrite of their bio.

If you are searching for mentors to help you advance your career, whatever your skills are (even early in your career) make sure you’re not just asking, but you are also giving. Here are some ways to set yourself up for a lifetime of learning:

Align your goals and what you want to accomplish with relationships that support your vision

I’ve had people approach me with very specific asks: can you help me with my presentation skills? This is a great example of a mentoring relationship that is focused on a specific skill…so it may have a shorter lifespan than other mentorships that may last for many years.

Cultivate relationships

Don’t “cold call” a potential mentor who is a complete stranger. Instead, ask someone for coffee or lunch, get to know who they are and explain what your goals are and why you are seeking them out. For example: “I admire the way that you simplify complex concepts and communicate them to our shareholders. Would it be okay, if I occasionally reached out to you for advice when I’m working on something?”

Expand your network

If you are looking to tap into an existing network at a broader level, there are formal programs where you can be matched with a mentor. Many industry associations do this. For example, WIFS has a strong mentorship program for women in the financial services industry, and the Women President’s Organization has a powerful network of women members whose culture focuses on advocating for each other.

Understand the difference between a Sponsor and a Mentor

Having mentors and sponsors can help you propel your career forward. It’s important to know the difference between a sponsor and a mentor. Both are valuable. Mentors can help you develop. Sponsors help you advance. Sponsors are critical to your success and here’s what is tough…you don’t always know who they are. Your secret ingredient to get on a sponsor’s radar and have them working for you at those critical junctures in your career… is your personal brand.

Leverage your personal brand

How do you show up every day? As Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said, “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.” When you raise your hand for a tough project, take the extra initiative, work across the company, knock down barriers, celebrate others…all those things create sponsors and build your brand. Think of a sponsor this way: a group of senior leaders is in a room and they are building a team. They want the right people. Names start getting tossed around. Someone advocates for each member of that new team because of how those people are perceived and how they consistently show up.

Give back

And here’s the silver lining…the good karma. You get to pay it all back by being a mentor and a sponsor yourself.  Nothing feels better than reflecting on who has helped you in your career and extending the hand to someone that may be that greener version of you, many paychecks ago. With mentorship and sponsorship, you can be part of a never-ending circle of gratitude.