If you ask any successful person, most of them will say they had a mentor at some point during their career. Nikolai Tesla, Oprah Winfrey and Mark Zuckerberg all credit some amount of their success to a colleague who guided them.
Mentors usually come in the form of a friend or colleague with whom you have an emotional connection and who knows you well enough to help you make informed decisions on your career path. They guide you, offer practical advice from their experience and can help you avoid pitfalls many fall into. More and more companies have created internal mentoring meetings to help their employees plan for the future. In fact, according to a study by the American Society for Training and Development, 71 percent of Fortune 500 companies have mentoring programs in place to make the process that much easier.
Even with all the benefits of having a career mentor in your life, there is another connection that is arguably even more important for taking your career to new heights: a career sponsor.
Career sponsors are gatekeepers. They have the ability and are willing to open doors for you professionally that you may not be able to open yourself. The distinction between a mentor and a sponsor lies in the fact that sponsorships have less to do with emotional connection or friendship and involve a transaction. Sponsors usually are someone you work directly for; they can speak to your abilities and vouch for you because they have seen your work firsthand. These are the people that can actively accelerate your career.
Career sponsors can be the difference between getting to the C-Suite and falling short. It’s important to remember that career sponsors won’t come to you. You need to seek them out and formally ask them to help you. If you’re confident in your abilities, respect their time and follow through, you’re off to a great start.
Additionally, this relationship doesn’t have to last a lifetime. It can be contained to a job or period of your life — weeks, months or years. Sometimes the relationship between a sponsor and sponsee does turn into a friendship or, quite often, a mutually beneficial professional association.
At the end of the day, you’re in charge of your career. Put the golden rule of business (and one of the best principles to live by in life) into full effect daily: Give before you get, form great mentor and career sponsor relationships and most importantly, when you get to where you want to be professionally, be sure to send the elevator back down to help those next in line.