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What's the secret to career success?

Jan 18, 2024, 16:22 PM
Title : What's the secret to career success?
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Duration : 26 minutes
Originally published : Jan 18, 2024, 09:00 AM


How can mentorship and sponsorship set you on the path for professional success? 


In this podcast episode, host Adam Sparkes and Misty Bennett, associate dean for the College of Business Administration at Central Michigan University, discuss the importance of mentorship and sponsorship as it relates to career success.

Mentorship programs in companies can help retain top talent and provide opportunities for employees to grow their skills and make connections. Mentorship can be sought through formalized programs or by proactively seeking out mentors with complementary skill sets. It is important for companies to provide equal access to mentorship opportunities for all employees. Sponsorship, on the other hand, involves someone in a position of power or influence advocating for and promoting an individual's career advancement. Remote work during the pandemic has posed challenges for mentorship, as in-person interactions and nonverbal cues are important for effective communication. Companies can be more intentional about mentorship and create virtual spaces for mentor-mentee interactions. It is important for individuals to be proactive in seeking mentors and sponsors and to have clear goals and expectations for the relationship. 




Misty: We don't stop to really reflect. And I think there's a lot of power and growth in those moments of having the opportunity to think about how I did that, the process, what helped me, and being able to share that experience with someone. That's really powerful.

Adam: How can mentorship and sponsorship set you on the path to professional success? Welcome to The Search Bar. You've got questions. Let's find some answers. I'm your host, Adam Sparkes, and today we're chatting with Misty Bennett, associate Dean of the College of Business and Administration at Central Michigan University. Thanks for coming in, Misty. I'm excited to talk to you today about mentorship, and, more specifically, mentorship in the workplace. 

Why is mentorship in the workplace important?

Adam: As somebody who spent most of their career, myself, as an independent contractor, I know that mentor-mentee relationships are kind of weird in that space and it really wasn't until I started working in higher education where I would kind of see that existing day-to-day and really see the value. So, it's something that I don't know that earlier in my career I had placed a really high tangible value on, but it's super valuable, isn't it?

Misty: It is. And it's something that — companies have realized, for decades now, the importance of mentorship and having mentorship programs in place, in particular as a retention tool, really, to help build employee culture and to help certain groups in particular gain access to leadership roles. But it's something that I think even more now, in a post-pandemic world, where we're realizing the value of connections. And many people reach a point in their career where we think sometimes of mentorship as that starting point, “Well, I need a mentor to get ahead, I need a mentor to get moving.” But the reality is, we can all benefit from mentorships in a variety of ways. And so, what I see mentorship right now being most helpful for is those folks who are in the mid-stages of their career, kind of in this, “I don't really know what's the next move for me.” And you reach a point where, in a lot of companies, there are only so many positions at that next level and there's a lot of competition for it. And so, that's when we start to, from an organizational perspective, worry about losing top talent because they're fighting for these small number of slots. So, for companies, it becomes a really important retention tool because then they're able to go in and say, “We know we've identified these people as high performers, we know they're valuable and we're going to match them through this mentorship program with leaders,” sometimes in entirely different units and departments. And it gives the employee an opportunity to try projects, to make connections, to make relationships with people in different levels of the company. And that can be really valuable in giving them something that they're feeling they're continuing to grow their skillset as they're making those transitions through their career.

What are the benefits of a mentor relationship?

Adam: What you just described a little bit, I think, is kind of like a formalized mentorship program where an organization is making sure that there's time or priority carved out for these relationships to exist. Is that something that you're seeing more of and is that an effective way to get a mentor? And if so, or if not, what are the other ways to do it?

Misty: Yeah, it's a great question, and it's a, “Yes, and…” Companies are doing it right now, I think, a lot more intentionally than they were before, in part because we have more hybrid workers. And so, there's a fear: if I don't see this person in the office all the time, then I can't tend to their development as well, right? I don't get to see their performance; I don't get to have those conversations with them. So, I think that, in part, that that's driving that formalized mentorship program. But I do think that there's also growing space for people to seek their own mentors. And I think that's something that's really important for all of us to think about. And I think sometimes that we think about mentorship, when we go in, assuming that we have to find someone who's able to coach me in my specific role, and that's not always the case. And sometimes it's more powerful to find someone who has a complementary skillset in a different area that you want to grow into. And there's also safety in being able to seek someone outside of your department or unit that you can have more critical conversations with about, “Here are challenges that I'm facing.” “Here's a people issue that I'm dealing with.” “Here's a political issue I'm dealing with.” “How would you navigate this?” And you have that safety that you wouldn't have otherwise trying to deal with your own personal and political dynamics on your own team.

What should you consider when choosing a mentor?

Adam: Yeah, and then there's different ways that you might get those mentorships, or there might be different motivations to be in that mentor-mentee relationship, right? Sometimes mentorship happens to, you don't realize you're in a relationship with that, right? 

Misty: Absolutely. 

Adam: There are these organic means where we might end up in a mentor-mentee relationship because we just found a common ground, and that common ground might be more friendly. And then the next thing you know, you're kind of off to the races on something that either lasts a really long time or just ends up having a professional benefit. Do you find that people are proactively finding mentorship as part of a plan, or is it something that is happening pretty organically in the workplace? Again, assuming that they're not in a formalized program?

Misty: Yeah, it's a great question. And actually, I'll use this as an opportunity to bring in something that I think is important to talk about in this area. I think it's organic for some, but not for all. And so, depending on the demographics of the institution that you're at, the discipline that you're in, that means that some people might have easier access to mentors than others because of exactly some of the same ways that you say. You know, mentorship can happen very organically. Usually, it's because of a shared characteristic we might have. We went to the same school. Well, if we went to the same school, we might have similar racial backgrounds or other demographic profiles. And so, part of what's important for companies is to be intentional about providing opportunities to everyone. And so, that's one of the benefits of a formalized mentorship program, because otherwise, people who are otherwise marginalized are going to have a harder time accessing those mentors. And then from the mentee's perspective, one of the things that I think is really important to think about is being intentional in a place where otherwise we do kind of take mentorship for granted. It's this natural thing that will just happen to me. What if it doesn’t? What if you get into a company and you're thinking, “Gosh, this is going to be great, and I've got all these goals,” and then nobody kind of scoops you under their wing and there's not this succession planning that happens, and there's no formalized mentorship and no coaching, and then you're in this place of, “Gosh, I'm the one who's going to have to drive this.” And so, I talk a lot to folks about being confident in your own — what are your needs that you're trying to accomplish? What are the goals and objectives you want to get out of that mentoring relationship? Because, at the end of the day, it's your career and you're going to get out of it what you want to get out of it. And when you're asking a mentor to put in the time to mentor you, that's something that you want to make the most effective use of that time. And so, the more time that you've spent planning and thinking about your own — what are my goals that I want to get out of this? Is it advancing to the next stage in my career? Is it having a sounding board that I can test ideas off of? Is it just growing my network? Right? Those three different types of mentoring relationships might look very different. And sometimes you'll get really lucky and find one person who can check all those boxes. Very often you won't. And so, I might have someone that I'm strategically seeking as a mentor because they're going to help me with that next step, and I might have to also build my network with other people. You know, it can be, at times, I think, overwhelming to get into and feel like, “Oh, this is all on me. And now I have to do this, and I have to figure out mentorship.” And so, I think sometimes it's finding what's that one biggest priority for you that you have now? Start small. Pick someone who you feel like is approachable. Get practice at it before you make that big ask to someone that you think might really be that big step in your career.

How do you build a relationship with a mentor?

Adam: They might not even be somebody who's that far ahead of you, or that much older than you, or something like that, in your career either, right? I think that might be a bit of a misconception. You can have kind of — even a cooperative mentorship relationship. Right?

Misty: Absolutely. I think that's a great point. I've actually had people ask me to mentor them who were older than me. I don't think that the traditional limitations of what that looks like, in terms of supervisor-subordinate relationships, those lines fade away when you're talking about mentorship. But one of the things that I think is really important, from the mentee’s perspective — to your point about seeking out that mentor and what that looks like — is that, almost always, we know they're going to be busy. Everybody's busy right now, so you want to be sensitive to their time. But most people will say yes when you appeal to, "I respect you, I admire you as a colleague, I value you for X, Y, Z. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?" People love to talk about themselves. So those are very comfortable waters to be in at first when you're starting a mentoring relationship. So, get them to talk about their career, what was helpful to them. What were the obstacles for them? How did they overcome them? What are professional development opportunities they sought out that were helpful? And so, making those kinds of connections are usually very easy for mentors to want to say yes to. So, I think one of the things that we assume about mentorship is that I have to seek someone that is in that next stage of their career. And so, not only am I looking for someone with complementary skill sets, but there might be opportunities to actually learn from someone else's mistakes. And so, I think sometimes it's helpful to watch those who are in those next positions, and to watch the way that they make decisions, and have questions about them. About, “Hey, what led you to do this?” “Why did you take this approach?” And sometimes there's a lot that you can learn from that as well.


Who can be a mentor?

Adam: And that could be an example of one of those relationships that may be a little shorter term too, right? 

Misty: Sure. 

Adam: Again, I want to be emphatic that when we talk about mentorship, I think we think of these big relationships, and sometimes someone's your mentor for three months, or six months, or for two weeks. These things can be shorter. They might serve much more particular purposes, and you move on. That's okay as well.

Misty: And mentorship, I think that at the end of the day, it's also something that you get to experiment with because of that. Because there can sometimes be short relationships. You get to practice what those relationships look like, and they can change, and they can evolve over time. And I think the other thing that I would advise people on is to not ever make assumptions about when you're getting ready to approach that person for that conversation of are you willing to be my mentor? Do you have the time to do so? We sometimes make assumptions that if somebody's in a certain position, let's say they're the vice president of that unit, boy, they're too busy to say yes. So I'm not going to approach them. I've had some of my most successful mentorships from someone in much higher positions than me because that is very much embedded in what they do. And they carve time out of their weeks to make sure they're mentoring people at all levels of the organization. And I've been very surprised at that. So that's been a lesson that I personally have learned is: don't be afraid. Don't make assumptions that somebody might not have the time. Make the ask. And I think that it's just helpful to have your own expectations defined and to say, you know, I'd like to meet once a month. Is that something that you're willing to provide? Is that going to work for you?

What is the value of a mentorship relationship for the mentor?

Adam: What about the mentor? What's the benefit of all of these things for the mentor? How do you take this stuff on? How do you manage it from a time perspective? And then, I don't know, selfishly, what are you getting out of it?

Misty: Yeah, so it's a great question. You're already very busy, and overloaded, and you have people usually that you're managing and supervising. And so, mentorship is that additional, that extra add-on. I think that it's really powerful to have someone ask you questions. When you're immersed in the day-to-day, and the busy and the hectic, and doing all of the things, to stop for a second and say, “Why did I choose this profession?” “What did get me here?” “What are those milestones or learning lessons along the way?” And I think that's really important because people have — like I said, we like to talk about ourselves and take the second to reflect and think on our journey. And so, sometimes you can learn and grow along with your mentee as you're having these conversations that you don't otherwise have the time to stop and think about.

Adam: It sort of forces you to unpack or reflect on how you got somewhere.

Misty: Absolutely. It's the same thing as — I remember taking a psychology class when we were talking about how our brain automates all of these processes that we do every day. So you might not have paid attention to the fact that the light was green when you just went through that intersection, but it was, and your brain knew it. And so, we're very often on autopilot, and being able to be a mentor and pause and think through, “Boy, that really was a challenging moment that I worked through.” “That was a big conflict I had to deal with.” “Boy, how did I navigate the pandemic and leading a team through it?” We don't stop to really reflect. And I think there's a lot of power and growth in those moments of having the opportunity to think about how I did that, the process, what helped me, and being able to share that experience with someone. That's really powerful.

Adam: Right. And it's going to help you be a more empathetic leader, I feel like too, because you kind of recognize where your own struggles were, even if it worked out really well. You're not in a position where you go, “That was really easy for me. I did it.” You may have, but if you really are able to be introspective about how you got there: A, you probably had some help yourself, speaking of those mentor-mentee relationships, and B, there was probably some figuring out, even if it was fairly successful. So, if somebody is coming to you and they're asking about said situation — if it's navigating your team through the pandemic, if you come out of it good, the team's doing well, the productivity is up — you kind of go, yeah, I did that really good. The pandemic's kind of an extreme example. I don't think anybody didn't feel a little stressed out. But it might, you know, 2, 3, 4 years down the road as we kind of approach that, it might be kind of easy to go, “Yeah, we figured it out, you can figure it out.” That's probably not the attitude you want to have if you want to be a leader. You can have that attitude and be a bad boss, but you're probably not going to be a leader if you're not honest with yourself about how difficult those things might have been.

Misty: Yeah, and I think the other thing from the mentor's perspective is to think about the things that you can get out of the relationship with a mentee. And sometimes I might not have a skillset that you have as a mentee that I can learn from you. So, we make the assumption that mentor has to have all of the knowledge and all of the things, and that's not the case. So, I think that's where that initial relationship, when you're establishing it, is so important to say, “Here are my skillsets, here are my strengths as a mentor, here are the areas that I feel like I can coach you on.” Versus — if you're coming to me asking for help with time management and project management, and I'm a very strategic person and that's not my skillset — I need to also be able to say that, and then recommend someone who might be more suited to do that. So, I do think there's sometimes this assumption that there's something magical about a mentor that they have to have all the answers in the world. And the beauty of a true mentorship relationship is you get to see that they're just a human being, and they're navigating the same things that we're navigating. They're making mistakes, they're learning from them. And so, the nice thing about mentorship, especially when you're able to seek someone outside of your direct unit that you're working in, you get to have more real conversations about what that process looks like.


What's the difference between mentorship and sponsorship?

Adam: Tell me a little bit about sponsorship. What's the difference between sponsoring and mentoring?

Misty: Yeah, I would love to. You need both a mentor and a sponsor, really. And so, a mentor is someone where I'm having those conversations around what are my strengths, what do I want to do with my career, where do I need to grow and develop, and how do I do that? But a sponsor is really someone who almost could be your cheerleader. So, they know you, they know your skillset, they know your work, they know your value that you add to the team, and they're in a position of power or influence where they're able to help share that message about how amazing your work is, how talented you are. They're bringing your name up at meetings, they're passing your name up as suggestions to serve on projects, task forces. So, they are someone who can really help to advance your career. Whereas mentorship is more in that it can be all of the things, and more developmental. And so, sponsorship is something that I think is a relatively newer concept to some but has existed. We're calling it something now. I think that we, naturally, know this exists, but now that we can be intentional about it, I think that there's a lot of power in that. And so, people, in particular, again, minoritized individuals, for women, for advancing their career sponsors can be really important. And it's tricky because not everyone who are at higher levels of organization are trained or taught about sponsorship. And so, it's something I think that is relatively new to companies to teach people what does it mean to be a sponsor? And so, there's another term ‘allyship’ that is floating out there and what is allyship? And that's about me being able to use my privilege to help others to bring them and elevate them to roles within our organization. And so, we're finally starting to provide some developmental opportunities for managers and leaders in this area. But I think that it's somewhere where you're not going to hit every single person who's going to know, “Oh yes, I know sponsorship and I'll be your sponsor.” You might have to be prepared to have that conversation about what is a sponsor. And I think one of the things that's a little bit different from mentorship is that you have to be able to have demonstrated your performance with this person. So, you have to had the opportunity for you to see my work and say, “Oh, yeah, I served on this committee with Misty. I can vouch for her. She's really good at X, Y, Z.” So, you have to be strategic in who you want to partner with — approach to be your sponsor — but it needs to be somebody who has already been able to see a little bit of what you can do.

Why is sponsorship important?

Adam: Right, so there's a little bit of a real workplace value proposition there, right? You're kind of like, “Hey, you saw how fast I got that done.”

Misty: It's really coming from a place of career advancement, an employer retention tool. But it also is coming from a place of DEIJB lens, where we're trying to help provide equal access to folks who traditionally have not had equal access.

Adam: And that's that allyship component you're talking about too, where you're taking your privilege or your advantage and you're using that to help make space for folks in your organization who might not have had a similar privilege or advantage.

Misty: Exactly.

What does mentorship look like in a remote world?

Adam: A lot of people undoubtedly went through a remote work stretch — at some point during the Covid-19 pandemic, at its height, had ability of that flexibility. If you have a job where you have to be at a third site: you're a construction worker, you're a sanitation worker, you're a doctor, you've got to work there. If that's not your job, which is a lot of Americans, you've worked remote. How does that affect mentorship?

Misty: Yeah, so this is something that is really interesting because what we saw during the pandemic that was kind of concerning is — as we were coming out of that, everyone had to stay at home, and now you can move to it's your option to stay at home — is who were opting to stay at home we're more likely to be women. And so, the concern grew that we know that most mentorship — we're talking about the informal, organic, these natural things that happen — those opportunities happen in the workplace physically. So, we started to worry, “Gosh, you know, if proportionately more women are staying at home now to work remotely, they're not going to have those access, that opportunity to be able to approach a mentor.” And so, companies, I think, need to be a lot more intentional about mentorship. So, if you didn't have a formal mentorship program in place before the pandemic, you absolutely have to have one now. Leaders who sometimes manage remote teams, the best practice that I've seen is having, a couple times at least a week, it's a Monday morning at 8:00 AM and I've got my Teams page, or whatever our internal messaging app is, open and I'm having a virtual coffee hour. And so, it's a drop in opportunity for anyone. As a mentee, you have to be a lot more intentional about approaching someone. And that may mean setting, "Hey, I want to weekly have these virtual meetings with you." And even then it's really a challenge because there are certain topics that if you and I were on, if we had a computer between us right now, it would be harder for us to navigate and talk about than they are when you're in person together. And so, that's — in mentorship, sometimes the really important conversations need to happen in person. So, if you're physically able, I think it's really important if you have the ability to say let's meet once a week for coffee or lunch or something like that to be able to do it in person. Oftentimes you'll find that you can develop a closer relationship than you would otherwise.

Adam: Yeah, I mean part of it is the technology that's made remote work possible is also a weird barrier to communication at the same time. I mean, I don't think anybody who's experienced hours of Teams meetings, hours of Zoom meetings — I don't think that anybody has ever been like, “Man, it's just the same thing as having a conversation —.” Even if it's one-on-one. I know I have friends and family that don't live near me. And sometimes when you're doing the screen thing, it feels really good, but then when they're in person it's like, “Oh man, you're like a different entity than the version of you that's on a Skype call.” It's not the same thing at all. And it's almost an uncanny valley to me, where it's like I can't fully put my thumb on it, but I know it's something to do with the technology. And maybe I'm too extroverted and I just need to see people moving and existing in space for it to work. 

Misty: Well, and it's not just you, it really is. And I'm not a communications expert, but we know that we are largely, most of what I'm soaking in about my environment and communication are nonverbal cues, right? And so, I think having that extra layer, I'm losing some of it. I can see you on the screen, but yeah, where you are looking and all of the little nuances, I'm not getting that same feeling. And so, I think it's a lot more challenging. And in the mentorship space, I think that we've seen that, and we've seen people who have joined companies as a new employee for the first time in an entirely remote workforce really struggle with feeling like they're connected to the employee, and not understanding the culture of the company. And so, really struggling to see, “Well, how do I fit into this greater picture of what this company is and our company culture?” And so, companies, I've seen them do some cool stuff and experiment around how do we have Zoom parties? We might have karaoke time, we might have a company trivia night. We'll have different things that they're trying to offer to new employees to give them a feel for what that culture is. But I think that it's a lot more challenging than if they had the advantage of being able to have them in person.

Adam: Right. And back to your point before too about allyship and inclusivity, that's probably just compounded for folks that might have otherwise already felt slightly out of place in a workplace for various identity reasons too, outside of the...

Misty: Exactly.

Adam: ...their space in the corporate...

Misty: They were already not at the same place in the starting line, and now it's even more complex. It's harder. 

What should my next steps be?

Misty: If you don't have a mentor, today's your day. So, think about that person that you want to seek out. And it can be very simple thinking about what is one goal that I want out of this relationship and who's that person to approach? And I would just encourage people to not be limited in who they approach. And don't be afraid to hear a ‘no’ every now and then, and don't take that personally. People have a lot of demands on them right now. So, I think the more mentors that you have, the better. And it's about building those networks and those connections. And at the heart of it, connections are everything.

Adam: You heard it here. Today's your day. Get a mentor if you don't have one or evaluate whether you have one and you don't know it.

Misty: Yeah, absolutely.

Adam: Awesome. Thanks so much, Misty.

Misty: Thank you.

Adam: Thanks for stopping by The Search Bar. Make sure that you like and subscribe so that you never have to search for another episode.

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Adam Sparkes is a nearly 20-year veteran of commercial, editorial, news and travel photography. A lover of news, pop culture, board games and gluten-free pizza, Adam is eternally curious to learn about anything and everything.

In addition to his role as host for “The Search Bar,” Adam serves as CMU’s associate director of multimedia and photography where he can be found crawling on the ground or sprinting down the sidelines to get the perfect shot.

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