Building Relationships that Help You Build Your Career

by | Aug 15, 2023 | Leadership

Planning for success in your career is a lot like planning for a big trip. Imagine you finally decide to take that “bucket list vacation”…

You’ve dreamt about it for years, selected your destination, spent hours weighing all the options and getting advice from friends, travel bloggers and maybe even a travel agent – shopped, packed, and readied yourself for the journey. 

Your career is a lot like that trip. Having an itinerary (or game plan) is critical, and relying on trusted resources to make the most out of your experience is a must. Those trusted resources – career relationships – in your professional inner circle are your Mentors, Coaches, and Sponsors and each play a unique role in guiding your career.

So, what’s the difference between Mentors, Coaches, and Sponsors? Where can you find them and how can you become one?

How do you define a “mentor”?

We all have vivid memories of powerful relationships with friends, coaches, teachers, and managers whose advice and support moved us in new directions. These are our mentors – the ones who say “I’ve been there! Let me help.”

I was 19 when a family friend (and one of my first mentors), helped me choose a college major and guided me towards a career in sales. In my 30’s, when I had my first child and struggled to balance the demands of my career and a new family, I turned to other mentors who were working moms. And when I made the move to the Optical Industry a decade later, it was career relationships with experienced colleagues and new mentors who made important introductions and offered support to navigate the change. 

Mentors give us comfort that we’re not on the journey alone. We turn to them when we’re searching for answers and need support. Their wisdom, experience, and genuine desire to help moves us forward with confidence. Mentors are truly the lifeblood of our careers. 

Given the complexities of life today, having a solid network of mentors, each playing a unique role, is more critical than ever. Thanks to social/professional networking and virtual events like the programs offered by the OWA, we have many opportunities to establish and nurture these vital relationships. 

To make the most of mentoring, take time to invest in and build the relationship, express gratitude for your mentor’s support and keep them informed of how their advice helped you. There is nothing more gratifying for a mentor then to know they’ve positively impacted your journey in some way. 

What’s the difference between a mentor, coach, and sponsor?

MENTOR is someone we look to for guidance. Our conversations leave us feeling fulfilled and inspired. Mentors are the heart and soul of our support system.

If you’ve ever played sports, you know how vital a great COACH can be. They help improve your skills, score goals, win games, and build confidence. Coaches are there to help you perform at your best and prepare for gameday.

Coaches in your professional network serve a similar role – they ask the tough questions and help you find the answers. They assess performance, provide direct feedback on how you can improve, and help you develop the hard and soft skills needed to be successful. While mentors are our support system, coaches drive you to be your best self.

If you’re looking to advance in your career, take on a new assignment, or find the next big opportunity, then a SPONSOR is gold. Sponsors believe in your potential, open doors to new opportunities and help make things happen for YOU. 

A simple way to sponsor someone you have confidence in is to recommend them when opportunity comes your way. I’ve always believed that every call from a colleague, recruiter, or search firm is a chance, not just to build a relationship myself, but also to connect people I know, to what could be a wonderful career move for them. 

Simply put, a sponsor is someone who advocates for you when you’re not in the room.

To summarize the unique role each plays on your career journey:

  • Mentors => Provide Support/Advice
  • Coaches => Drive Performance
  • Sponsors => Unlock Opportunities

How do you know which type of support and career relationships you need?

Like all journeys, careers ebb and flow through various stages, each requiring different types of career relationships. These stages can include Growth/Discovery, Leadership, and Transition, to name a few. 

Mentors are essential early on in our careers when we’re in Growth/Discovery mode. As we learn new skills, take on assignments, and grow professionally, we lean on our Mentors for their wisdom and experience to navigate the unknown. Sponsors are also important as they see your potential and have confidence recommending you to Transition to bigger roles.

As leaders, our impact is felt across the teams we manage and the organizations we’re part of and the stakes are much higher. Having a well-rounded support system of Coaches, Mentors, AND Sponsors is essential to navigate these complexities. However, Coaches are especially important to provide direct feedback when others may be reluctant to do so. They help build your self-awareness, and prepare you for broader responsibilities. 

During periods of transition like career change, retirement, or reinvention, Mentors act as a sounding board and help build you up, while Sponsors are key to unlocking new opportunities.

How can you find or ask someone to be a mentor, coach, or sponsor?

Your network is already filled with people you lean on for advice and who are always willing to lend a hand (and an ear). These are your people! 

If you’re looking to expand your mentors even further, start with people you know and who know you. Specifically, reach out to people who inspire you, who you respect, and who you’d like to learn from. Build a genuine relationship and don’t be afraid to ask for support. Start with something as simple as:

“I really enjoyed your presentation today and would love to learn more about how you’ve navigated your career. I’m thinking about my next steps and want to understand what it takes to be successful. Would you be up for a coffee some time so I could learn more?” 

Follow up, say thanks, and always be respectful of your mentor’s time. 

Need a coach to give you feedback on your performance or to prepare for your next big presentation? Ask your manager or a senior colleague for input and then get their feedback on how you can improve. Want a more formal coaching experience? Research leadership development programs at your company or externally, through management institutions or colleges /universities, which can be done online or in person.

To earn a sponsor’s support, be known for doing great work. Establish yourself as a positive, ‘can-do’ leader, and be sure your contributions are known. Remember, sponsorship isn’t a career relationship that’s given – it’s earned. If there are key people whose support you need, ask for their feedback on your readiness. And don’t be afraid to take on new projects where you can SHINE!

How do you maintain these relationships?

Building connections and fostering career relationships at work and in life is as essential as the air we breathe. Relationships thrive when your intentions are genuine and when you invest the energy to make them work. Always show your gratitude to people in your inner circle for the time, advice, and support they’ve provided. Look for ways to pay it forward by doing the same for others in their career. 

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