Why mentorship matters

Four type of mentoring relationships: peer, career, therapy and reverse mentoring - finding the right one for you

One of my favorite card games is Euchre - a four person trick-taking game. In it, you work together with your partner to collect the most number of tricks each round. Once in a blue moon, you may have an amazing hand – and then you may choose to “go alone” – at which point your partner lays down their hand and you are responsible to win the game on your own (similar to shooting the moon in Hearts).

I like this as a metaphor for work – yes, the stars can align, you can work really hard and “win” in your project, job, career – but that is incredibly rare. Most of the time, you need to rely on other people to help you get to where you are going. And usually, as someone helps you, you are actually helping them too.

So in this post, I will discuss why and when you should consider having a mentor, types of mentorship relationships and the difference between a mentor and a sponsor. Let’s dig in.

What is a mentor and why do I need one:

Mentor is defined as a person who gives a younger or less experienced person help and advice over a period of time, especially at work or school. I take this a bit further and actually categorize my mentors as peer, career and therapist mentors. Additionally, I also recommend having “reverse mentors” for those who are farther along in career, which is basically another term for learning from people who are younger than you in career - Why Reverse mentorship works and how to do it right is an HBR article that makes a good case for this as well.

Most of the mentors I have had throughout my career, have come out of my network or were recommended to me by manager. Before asking someone to be my mentor or for a recommendation for one, I ask myself what problem am I trying to solve, do I need a mentor right now and if yes, what kind of mentor would be most helpful. In my case, I almost always have mentors in my life, but if you don’t know why you need one, I’d recommend figuring that out first, rather than finding one just to have one.

Here are the four types of mentors I seek depending on the situation I’m in:

Peer mentors – often this person is on my immediate or adjacent team, someone who helps me ramp at the beginning and then evolve to be a sounding board for problems I’m working on solving. I usually have 3-5 peer mentors and they are informal. Usually this is a reciprocal relationship – where you are sharing your expertise as well and you are trading knowledge, tips and tricks.

Duration and frequency: Peer mentor relationships often last a finite amount of time (6 months to a year) and the peer mentor is slightly ahead of you but not by much (may just be that this person has been on the team longer than you). I recommend meeting once a month for 45 minutes.

For example, I had a peer mentor who was 1-2 years ahead of me as a manager – she asked me great questions, reassured me because she had recently been in my shoes and shared her lived experiences.  

Career mentors – this is a person farther ahead professionally than you. Someone whose job you imagine you may want one day or a leader you admire and want to emulate some of their skills.

Frequency and duration: 1-2 years, once a quarter for 30-45 minutes depending on what they can give you

For example, when I was in marketing but was contemplating switching to the product discipline, I had multiple product mentors who helped me better understand the life of a product manager. When I did become a product manager, I adjusted and looked for career mentors who could coach me in my product thinking and how to develop it. For that, I sought folks who were product leaders rather than individual contributors or even frontline PM managers.

Therapist mentors – these are people who either do not work in your organization or are really far away from you if they are in the same company. This should be a safe person to vent and complain to. This person is unequivocally on your side and will not have an opportunity or a need to share anything you share. Of course, a good therapist mentor will push you to reframe your thinking and get out of your rut (either by helping you work through your problem or help you get yourself out of the situation).

Frequency and duration: 30 minutes once a month or as needed with varying time duration  

For example: Personally, these are often times my former managers or former senior members of the team who have since left. I remember many years ago, the team I was in went through a major downsizing and a reorganization. I was devasted because the general manager’s job was eliminated and my world was significantly impacted. A “therapist” mentor whom I confided in, told me that I can either commit, lean in and stay or I need to leave. But there is no in between. I took her words to heart.  

Reverse mentors – I sometimes hear from people young in career that they don’t want to waste a senior person’s time as they have nothing to offer them and don’t want to be an imposition. If that person is you, please know that people farther along in career not only want to give back but also look forward to seeing the world through a different lens (aka your eyes). So things that I always cherish learning from folks I mentor (and who are mentoring me, whether they know it or not), is what apps you are using, what books you are reading, what you think of what’s going on in our problem space and so much more. I find these relationships to be incredibly fulfilling and I continue to seek them out.  

Sponsors – people who create opportunities for you

I am so grateful for all my mentors – these are people who have lifted me up, given advice, offered up new perspectives and have often become lifelong friends.  However, while I can make an argument that there is a time and a place for a mentoring relationship, I am convinced that it is important to have and nurture sponsors in your professional life.

First things first – mentors are people who give you feedback and guidance. Sponsors are people who advocate for you. If you are a woman reading this, there is a good chance that you have many mentors and not enough sponsors. Unfortunately, it’s pretty common that we are over-mentored and under-sponsored, and that is keeping women from advancing in leadership roles (read a 2019 HBR article).

Unfortunately, you can’t show up at someone’s door and ask them to be a sponsor - sponsorships are earned and nurtured through time and mutual lived experiences. Often times, sponsors evolve from successful career mentorship relationships as well as from former managers or partners you work closely with.

Example: When I was switching to the PM discipline, my sponsor (and future manager) came to me and said “we have a perfect opportunity for you – a role you are uniquely suited to do and I think you should apply for it.” While other PM managers I spoke to, welcomed me to interview, they did not have that conviction that I was the right person for the role. My sponsor did not just need a butt in the seat, but he needed me because he was convicted that I had unique skills to bring and then he used his power to make it happen. For comparison, a mentor, would share the opportunity or push you to apply for one but not have the power to lend you support.

Tying it all together

So net-net, the reason I encourage you to have mentors and sponsors so that you can create a support network. In the absence of that, you are going to be hoping for the right cards to be dealt so that you can go it alone.

A quick note on where to find mentors:  

I recommend maintaining mentors inside and outside your company. Inside your company, if you are new, your manager may be a great resource to recommend folks. Remember to help your manager by clarifying what you are looking to gain from a mentorship relationship. The more mature organizations will also have formal mentorship programs set up where you can sign up. If you are an HR leader looking to set up a mentorship program inside your company, check out Sarah Haggard’s startup Tribute, which helps do exactly that. Sarah and I worked together at Microsoft and I’m so excited for the work she is doing to help with this critical employee need.

Coda on privilege

We end most of our posts with a note on privilege and ways to give back.  For this post, I am reminded of my time as a Big Sister when I lived in Sacramento (part of Big Brothers, Big Sisters of America) – it’s a wonderful way to mentor youth in your community.