A Mentor is Nice. A Sponsor is Better, but Don’t Forget about Your Tribe
I was recently asked to speak at an event about the importance of finding a mentor and/or a sponsor. We often hear about these two types of individuals as being the go-to source(s) when it comes to career advancement. In fact, so much emphasis is placed on mentors and sponsors, that we often forget that the people with the ability to have the greatest impact on our careers are often those most closely related to us in age and professional stature–our tribe.
As a woman of color who started working in corporate America fresh out of Harvard Law School, I can clearly recall my first experience with mentorship. When I began work at my first law firm, I received both a partner and an associate mentor. Back then, I mistakenly believed that both would take me under their wings and show me the ropes. Although my partner mentor meant well, it was clear to me at my young age, that she wasn’t truly invested in my success. On the other hand, my associate mentor made very few attempts to connect with me on a professional or personal level. He was merely going through the motions and doing what someone had asked or assigned him to do. My situation, however, is not that uncommon.
When I left that job to go work at my second law firm, my experience with “mentors” was much better. It was there that I was introduced to the idea of mentoring circles, a concept where groups of women go out on a regular basis to discuss the issues and challenges that they face in the workplace. The meetups could be to talk about something as simple as getting someone’s take on an assignment, or as complicated as career paths and balancing family and work. These mentoring circles were very helpful to me. I also had the good fortune to work closely with an African American woman who was a senior associate, turned partner. Not only did she take me under her wing, but we had many closed-door conversations where she taught me the unwritten rules of the workplace both professionally and personally. In teaching me how to avoid potential landmines or showing me how to navigate corporate politics, she was truly a remarkable and rare example in my long career of mentorship.
Even with this wonderful experience, both as a CEO and a lawyer, sponsorship, and mentorship have often eluded me. I don’t know if it is because of my gender or the color of my skin, but I have not allowed this to determine my success. Instead, I have allowed it to fuel me. These circumstances have ultimately created a situation where I have had to rely on what many people referred to as their tribe. Your tribe is the people that you went to school with, that work side-by-side with you, or the individuals that have/and or are currently facing the same challenges professionally as you. Often times they are not senior to you and you won’t be having closed-door meetings with them. But what you can count on them for, is to give you brutally honest advice, and meet with you on a moment’s notice.
Hindsight is 20:20, but here are five reasons why we all need a tribe:
- Getting on their calendar is easy.
Unlike mentors or sponsors, where you have to connect with their secretary and reach out and make plans months in advance, your tribe is just a phone call away. These are the people who are willing to go to lunch with you on short notice or grab coffee with you at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. In my case, these are the women, who I can call at 10 o’clock at night before meeting with the Walmart buyer, and ask them to review my powerpoint presentation. And while the may not know what sales per store per week means or what a planogram is, they are smart enough to ask me tough questions and help me communicate my points effectively.
The members of your tribe are what I would like to call low hanging fruit when it comes to the pecking order of individuals, who can help you advance in your career. I have had countless conversations with my girlfriends, who are also lawyers about the challenges we face in our careers. Although we practice different areas of the law, many times the issues with respect to politics and workplace drama are the same. I would not be where I am without their guidance. The same can be said for me now as an entrepreneur. There are wildly successful entrepreneurs, who I can hunt down for advice and beg for a 30-minute meeting six months from now, or I can shoot an email to my fellow peers in my Vistage CEO Advisory Group and get a response right away.
- They give brutally honest advice
Sometimes you need to hear the truth and that is where your tribe comes in. The advantage your tribe has over mentors and sponsors is that they may have known you for years and you share a level of comfort that you would not share with a workplace mentor. They are willing to have candid conversations that get to the heart of the matter without sugar-coating anything. These real moments can make all the difference when it comes to making decisions about your career.
- They are in the same boat or up against the same challenges
It is always good to have someone around who can identify with your experiences. There is something to be said for not having to explain every detail of your situation because your tribe just “gets it”. In talking about your similar obstacles, you can work through them and come up with workable solutions.
- You need accountability partners
You have decided to go into work and ask for a raise, but who is going to make sure you actually do it. Your tribe will. Telling your group about your intentions helps keep you accountable and follow through. Without them you might not push yourself to reach your goals.
- You need a support system
When you are having a challenging day or under stress, you need somewhere you can turn to for relief. Your tribe will be there for you when things get tough to offer words of encouragement and listening ears. You know that the relationship is reciprocal and that you will be there for them when they need it.
The world of work isn’t always easy and it can be hard to get through alone. Your tribe can offer a soft place to land, but also give you the edge you need to succeed. So find your tribe and love them hard. You won’t regret it.