How to grow through mentors and sponsors

No matter where you are in your career, mentors and sponsors can play a vital role in that journey. Whether you’re gearing up for your first job or trying to transition into a new role within the same company or at another company, finding the right mentor or sponsor can be pivotal.

No matter where you are in your career, mentors and sponsors can play a vital role in that journey. Whether you’re gearing up for your first job or trying to transition into a new role within the same company or at another company, finding the right mentor or sponsor can be pivotal.

When you’re trying to grow in your career, you may look at all the things you can do by yourself, but don’t get caught in the trap of doing everything on your own. When you start to trust other people on your professional journey, you’ll see that you’re stronger together. During a panel on mentorship, a group of Intuit employees shared how to find and grow with mentors and sponsors.

Mentor versus sponsor– what’s the difference?

A mentor is someone who helps you grow in your craft and skill set, while a sponsor is someone who advocates on your behalf to help you achieve a desired goal.

A mentor could be a family member or friend, co-worker, or manager. It could be a teacher or coach who sees something in you that you don’t yet see in yourself and helps you find your way.

Generally, a sponsor is a person of influence who can recommend you for a professional opportunity or vouch for you when you’re not in the room. It helps to have a goal in mind when you ask a sponsor to advocate for you, otherwise they won’t know what they’re recommending you for.

How do you identify the right mentor or sponsor?

The process is largely driven by you, the mentee, or sponsorship seeker. There are no hard and fast rules about who you can approach. They could be internal at your company or external at another company.

Seek out mentors or sponsors in an area that matters to you. If you’re looking to get a certain role or position—for instance, if you want to move up in management, engineering, product design, or sales—find someone that’s already there.

Perhaps you encounter someone in a meeting or at a company event who has qualities you admire and seems like someone you can learn a lot from. Tell them where you saw them (for example, in a meeting or on a panel) and politely propose a low-stakes meeting over coffee—it’s more casual than a meal. If all goes well, you can ask them to be your mentor.

What if I don’t have a lot of experience yet?

It’s never too early to seek out a mentor or sponsor. If you’re at the start of your career, you’re surrounded by people with years, if not decades of experience that you can benefit from. Ask what made them successful and try to align yourself with that. A mentor can later become a sponsor. Depending on the trajectory of your career, it’s important to reassess the relationship at different growth intervals. By now, your mentor knows something about what you want, your capabilities, and your character. At that point, you can ask them if they’d be willing to sponsor you. You may need to spell out what you mean by sponsorship; you can explain you’d like them to advocate for you, in rooms where you aren’t present, to be in a certain role or position.

Preparation is essential here. You need to be clear about your goals and objectives, otherwise you’re unlikely to get the attention you want. As a wise person once said, if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.

Getting past the awkward phase

You can meet external mentors or sponsors at networking events, conferences, and so on. But how do you get past the awkwardness of approaching someone you don’t know? An easy icebreaker is to ask for their business card. But you should also do your homework in advance. Check out their LinkedIn page and Google them to find out something about the person in order to try to establish a personal connection. Do they have a hobby or have they traveled to another country? If so, you could bring that up. And if you read an article about them or saw them speak at a conference, mention that, too. It’s all about building rapport.

Finding a formal mentorship program

Some companies offer internal mentoring programs. For example, Intuit has a returnship program (Intuit Again) that includes mentorship and is designed to support technologists returning to the workforce after taking a break in their careers.

Another potential source of mentors and sponsors is employee resource groups (ERGs). Members of these groups often automatically share points of commonality, which can be fertile ground for a productive mentor or sponsor relationship.

Build your own board of directors

A powerful practice is to create your own “board of directors.” These are the mentors in your personal or professional network whom you can go to for insight or help on specific issues. 

One could be the person you seek out to talk about money; another could be a public speaking wizard; another could be that person you go to when you need a confidence boost, and so on. And if you get help from them, be sure to return the favor in some way. Mentorship is a two-way street.

To avoid misunderstandings, it’s helpful to establish a structure and set boundaries early on. How and where do you want to meet? How often? At what times is it OK to contact the person and how do they prefer to be contacted?

Later on, when you know each other better, the interaction may become more flexible. The whole process should be based in trust, honesty, and transparency, which means keeping the lines of communication open.

How do you break up with a mentor?

Even with the best of intentions, some pairings are not a good fit. If that’s the case, it’s important to be honest. Out of respect for the other person’s time and energy, it’s OK to thank them for the effort they’ve invested and to acknowledge the truth.

It’s all part of the mutual caring both parties should bring to the relationship. The last thing anyone wants is to be meeting month after month when neither party wants to be there.

Whatever your background or career path, mentorship and sponsorship are powerful—and free—tools that can help you reach your career goals. Indeed, having the support of others can correlate to career jumps.

Above all, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Whether you are looking for a new job, internship, or are interested in returning to work in general, Intuit has options for you! Interested in learning more? Visit our webinar page to watch the full recording.