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Who’s on your team? A guide to coaches, mentors and sponsors

Who’s on your team? Who’s there to support you through all the ups and downs that life has a tendency to throw at you? Who has your back when the going gets tough? And who’s there to celebrate your big wins?

Yesterday I attended my sister-in-law’s ten year anniversary showcase for her dance school. Assisting backstage as a ‘runner’ (the technical term for directing masses of dancers – some as young as three – through the labyrinth-like backstage area to get them on stage right on cue), I was in awe at just how many bodies it takes to seamlessly execute a professional production.

It got me thinking that in our careers, just like directing a 270+ strong cast of dancers, we need to surround ourselves with a support team that sets us up to excel. One way I like to think about this is to ‘build a board’. 

I first heard this concept from one of my mentors and it has totally stuck.  A CEO doesn’t do it alone and nor should you. They’re supported by a highly qualified and diverse board of directors. So, be the CEO of your own career and build a board of trusted advisers around you.

Your board should be filled with people who complement you and your skill set, who challenge you and who support you.

Take yesterday, for example, I’m no dancing expert, but time management I can do. So while the dancers were busy stretching and prepping and pulling on costume after costume, I was able to step in and make sure they made it to the right place at the right time. I like to think that in my own way, and without any knowledge of dancing, I was able to contribute to the overall success of the show.

To bring this back to your career, if managing your personal finances isn’t your thing, bring someone who’s an ace with numbers on deck. If you have a business and you’re no good at marketing, get a pro marketer in your corner. If you just need a bit of extra support, nurture the people who you know will always be there to cheer you on from the sidelines. If your role changes and you’re suddenly tasked with something completely foreign to you, call on someone who’s been there before, who can chat you through what to expect in the first day, week and month.

When I think about who’s on my team, there’s the usual suspects – friends and family because they’re painfully honest and always have my back. But on the professional end of the spectrum, it’s important to also have a coach, a mentor and a sponsor on your team. These may seem like buzzwords that get thrown around a bit, but to truly navigate today’s complex business environment, it pays to have these guys on side.

So what are they exactly?

Coaching

Well, a coach is someone who guides you through how to do something. Their goal is to help you develop skills that advance your on the job performance. They talk you through task-based improvement and development opportunities.

Your manager at work may act as your coach – when they talk you through how to execute a process for the first time, for example, or when they give you developmental feedback and provide techniques for improvement. Of course, a coach doesn’t have to be your manager, and you can definitely seek out a coach in someone you see kicking goals in an area that you’d like additional guidance on.

Mentoring

A mentor, on the other hand, is much more about the big picture, they’re there to support your medium-long term development. They want to help you unpack where it is you want to go, clarify your career goals and help you get there. 

Say you’re looking to break into a new industry but aren’t sure where to start. Your mentor might help you develop possible pathways you can take to set yourself up for a sideways move – these could include further study, a secondment or internship, and if you’re lucky, they might be able to make a few introductions that help you get better informed.

Mentoring can be formal or informal. I’ve had both in my career and both have been hugely beneficial. What I would say though, is make sure you have a genuine rapport with your mentor. To get the most out of it, you need to feel comfortable being completely honest and open. And don’t feel like you need to jump in with the old ‘Can you be my mentor?’ as soon as you meet a potential good fit. Don’t rush it. Ask to buy them a coffee and take it from there.

Sponsorship

Then there’s sponsors. A sponsor is your advocate. They are well respected individuals in senior positions. They believe in you and champion you, putting your name forward for promotions, secondments or other cool opportunities. Unlike a coach or mentor, sponsorship has to come to you (sometimes you may not even know you have a sponsor!). The best way you can attract a sponsor is by letting your work, your brand and your reputation speak for you. Take opportunities to get yourself in front of your company’s senior leaders and showcase what you do best. If they’re going to advocate for you, they have to really believe in you!

So whether you’re putting on a show or looking to elevate your career, make sure that you’re surrounded by the right team members. Reach out, ask questions, network and bring your best self to the job everyday.

Do you have a coach, mentor or sponsor? How did you go about getting one? What advice do you have for our readers about nurturing these critical relationships?

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