Career acceleration: Why mentorship and sponsorship are key

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Mentors and sponsors are often the key in unlocking personal and professional development for women in tech and telecoms. Whether it’s offering impartial feedback, helping to navigate difficult conversations, providing access to a wider network, or ensuring the right words are said to the right people, mentors and sponsors act as critical enablers for reaching senior management and leadership positions.

While someone can have a mentor and a sponsor at the same time, they are distinct from one another, and the objectives and outcomes of these relationships should be treated differently.

What’s the difference between mentorship and sponsorship? 

A mentor is someone who provides guidance, advice, and support to help a mentee achieve their professional goals. They offer insight into their own experiences and provide feedback to help the mentee develop their skills and knowledge. Importantly, mentors can help women in tech and telecoms with particularly difficult and often delicate career challenges. These include broaching discussions with a manager about salary and progression, advising how to challenge biases and expectations with confidence, improve self-promotion, and capitalise on strengths.

On the other hand, a sponsor is someone who actively advocates for their ‘protégé’ and helps to create opportunities for them. A sponsor uses their own networks and influence to promote the career advancement of the person they are sponsoring. They are arguably even more important than mentors as a woman’s career progresses. Sponsors will often ‘put in a good word’ to the right people, making them invaluable in providing stepping stones to more senior positions, with research showing sponsorship accelerates career advancement considerably.

Why is mentorship and sponsorship crucial for tech and telecoms career development?  

Mentorship and sponsorship are crucial for career development, especially for women who may struggle with self-promotion and suffer from imposter syndrome.

Women often undervalue their own skills and rely on recognition for their delivery, rather than actively promoting themselves. A good mentor can draw out a person’s strengths, help them establish their abilities and achievements, and provide the confidence to navigate new roles and organisations. Mentors can also help with significant discussion points or transitions, such as navigating office politics and developing relationships with colleagues, senior leaders, or peers in the industry.

Meanwhile, sponsorship can provide a huge confidence boost by letting women know that senior leaders have their back. Sponsors can identify opportunities, connect women with the right people, outline any skills and training they might need, and coach them on building their profile. A good sponsor will also help those they are sponsoring to overcome the underrepresentation and imposter syndrome that women often face in both tech and telecoms.

How can I find a mentor or a sponsor and what should my objectives be?  

To find a mentor or a sponsor, we suggest people approach a manager or leader they admire. This can be someone in the same company or in the same industry, but ideally is a person who has been successful on a similar career path. Unless that person is already mentoring or sponsoring several people or they feel like they’re the wrong person, there’s unlikely to be resistance. Most people find it flattering to be considered good enough to mentor or sponsor someone else.

If there’s no one in the immediate network, then self-promotion can be useful for attracting potential mentors and sponsors, rather than actively seeking them out. This might be writing for an industry magazine, a LinkedIn blog post, or if possible, taking part in podcasts. Depending on the area of tech or telecoms, social media can be a powerful tool for self-promotion.

There are also numerous formal networks women in the tech and telecoms can join. Not only do these provide the opportunity to connect with potential mentors and sponsors, but they are a forum for connecting with peers, sharing experiences, and gaining advice and help. They are an easy in-person method of self-promotion and can often lead to job opportunities.

Finally, the objectives of having a mentor or a sponsor will vary depending on career goals, but generally, they should achieve several core outcomes. These include, developing key skills, providing career guidance, networking opportunities, personal growth, building confidence, transferring knowledge, advocacy, and long-term growth.

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