Mentorships, Sponsorships, And Evolving Workplace Norms — These Are The Career Tips You Didn’t Know You Needed

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In the early stages of my career, I joined a company that offered a campus rotation program that exposed me to various departments, from HR recruitment to generalist and management roles. The program included an assigned mentor with whom I had bi-weekly check-ins and lunches. That mentorship evolved into a sponsorship as my coach actively supported my career ambitions, recommending me for assignments that advance toward my goals.

Reciprocally, I ensured her inclusion and visibility in the interview process for candidates entering her department. As my career progressed, mentorships developed more organically. In one instance, during a critical period, when a facility where I worked as a junior HR Rep was acquired, a senior HR leader came in to assist with managing the transition. Our shared late-night shifts and early-morning breakfast runs forged a deep bond as I witnessed her excellence and absorbed her actions. Through long hours onsite and road trips to various facilities, the mentorship evolved into a friendship beyond the confines of work, including dog-sitting weekends, swanky holiday party invites, and a genuine connection we maintain today. These examples underscore the value of in-person interactions in cultivating meaningful, lived-in relationships when building workplace mentorship and sponsorship relationships.

The rise of remote work models presents unique challenges to mentorship and sponsorship dynamics. In-person interactions foster trust and understanding, which are harder to replicate virtually. Sponsors also face challenges in ensuring their protégés remain visible to key decision-makers. Advocacy like this is best facilitated in spontaneous in-person office scenarios. Diminished physical presence in the workplace is one of many hurdles today’s junior hires face.

ESSENCE enlisted the expertise of workplace expert Kelly Baker, Chief Human Resources Officer at Fortune 500 financial services organization Thrivent, for insights on circumventing obstacles and establishing essential mentorship and sponsorship relationships in the modern workplace.

Differentiating Mentorships and Sponsorships: Key Distinctions for Career Growth

College graduates entering the workforce often hear about the significance of finding mentors and sponsors for career support. But what is the difference between mentorship and sponsorship, and how can understanding these distinctions help young professionals navigate their career paths more effectively? 

Baker offers the following distinctions: “Mentors usually serve as an “informal coach” and a sounding board to help the mentee articulate their thoughts, ideas, or questions in a safe space, which can be extremely beneficial for someone early in their career. It’s also pretty informal and can be as simple as monthly coffee chats or something more consistent, like virtual connects on a weekly basis. Sponsorship goes a step further, requiring a person to actively advocate for an underrepresented colleague by vouching for their abilities and potential. It’s a high-stakes relationship that requires the sponsor to really lean in and invest in the person they’re supporting—whether giving them a seat at the table or having them spearhead key business priorities. Because of the high stakes, those who want a sponsor need to perform and deliver consistently.”

“As you enter the workforce,” Baker says, “it’s important to have people in your life who encourage and support you throughout your career. Understanding and identifying the support you want and need can set yourself up for long-term success.” 

Choosing the Right Mentors and Sponsors: A Key to Success

For young professionals, selecting the right mentors and sponsors is crucial. You want to choose individuals who are respected, well-connected, and committed to your success, as your mentor or sponsor’s reputation and credibility within the organization can significantly impact the opportunities you receive. “Often, a sponsor will choose you, but this shouldn’t stop you from voicing your interest,” Baker shared. “If there’s someone in your life you want to serve as a mentor or sponsor, show them why they should believe and invest in you. Do this by being open to feedback, learning all you can, staying hungry, and being confident in the skills and experiences you bring. Even though you’re new to the workforce, you still have a valuable perspective to offer.”

Baker says openness to diverse mentors is another important consideration: “While it’s important to seek out people you admire and aspire to be like as a mentor or sponsor, take the time to also connect with professionals who are on different paths from you. Your career, if anything like mine, will take many twists and turns—and you never know where a conversation or connection will lead. It is critical to be open to new and unexpected opportunities. Meeting people outside your specific role allows you to hear the diverse perspectives of others while expanding your knowledge as you enter the workforce.”

Navigating Remote Work Challenges in Mentorship and Sponsorship

As workplaces transition to remote and hybrid models, sponsors, mentors, and mentees must make a deliberate effort to maintain relationships. For recent college grads new to the workforce, practical steps can help ensure effective mentorship and sponsorship in remote settings. 

Start by setting clear goals and deadlines for your work, then schedule regular check-ins with your mentor or sponsor to discuss progress and receive feedback. Utilize task management tools to stay organized and accountable, and consider forming accountability partnerships with colleagues to support each other in meeting goals. Additionally, providing and seeking feedback fosters a culture of accountability and improvement within your team. 

In today’s rapidly changing work environment, mentorship and sponsorship play a vital role in career advancement. Authenticity is the cornerstone of these relationships, fostering trust, credibility, and long-term success. “The most successful sponsorship relationships not only require strong performance, but you also need to be transparent and authentic,” Baker told shared. “Be yourself. Don’t act or try to be someone you’re not because people will see through that.”

Embracing diverse connections, being open to unexpected opportunities, and navigating remote work challenges with proactive strategies are essential in fostering successful mentorship and sponsorship relationships for young professionals entering the workforce.

Quotes have been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.

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