The day I started my career back in February 2005, my first and new boss introduced me to a colleague (who himself had only been there for 6 months) and said: “He’s going to be your mentor and show you the ropes.” I followed my mentor around for a couple of months, pestered him with questions until I became somewhat independent.
It’s been over 15 years but it stuck with me and I have tried, to the best of my ability, to help, support, teach, mentor, coach, praise and sponsor colleagues ever since.
I realised recently that I am dedicating more and more hours to such activities. It prompted me to think: is it worth it for the people I support? Is it worth it for me?
This blog will cover the many different ways you can help and guide others at work and I’ll explain in my own words and experiences how both the giver and the receiver benefit from them.
Before I mentor anybody, I will make it a requirement that my mentee becomes a mentor him/her-self.
The most obvious common one but so important: welcoming somebody into your team or your company. Welcoming somebody could take multiple forms: it could be simply e-mailing the new arrival to wish him/her well and to introduce yourself or it could go all the way to being responsible for teaching the new joiner about tools, processes, org charts, expectations, etc..
It’s absolutely critical : do you want to lose 1/6th of your new hires within 3 months, after what is usually a gruelling recruitment process ?
It’s even more appropriate nowadays as we are all remote and there are limited ways to meet your new colleagues face-to-face. Morale in the first few days in a new job can be strangely low (“Have I made the right decision?” is a question I found myself wondering a couple of times in my career) and a video call with a friendly face can really improve a miserable day.
What’s in it for me?
When you help somebody bedding in their new role, you have, usually, made a friend for life. Your professional network has now expanded and seeing somebody growing into a new role or new company is rewarding.
A colleague recently asked me to review a blog post he wanted to publish (as he saw I was a pretty prolific blogger myself). Being asked to peer-review was a show of trust and I made sure I read his post multiple times and that my feedback was, I hope, constructive.
I now find myself reviewing a lot of internal documents, especially internal applications. At VMware, we have a number of internal programs that are extremely competitive to get into and require a thorough and well-put application describing what the individual has contributed to VMware and its customers.
Reviewing some of my colleagues’ applications to try to improve them is beneficial for me as it helped me crystallising my ideas and improving my own documents.
For example, to apply for a place on the sought-after VMware CTO Ambassador program, an inspiring candidate might list one of their achievements on their application like this:
“I presented at the VMware conference VMworld in 2018.”
Great, well done you. However, there are hundreds of presenters at VMworld. How do you differentiate yourself? What happened after your talk? How many people attended? What was the impact? What’s your supporting evidence? Show me some data!
After I would have reviewed the application with the applicant, the sentence might look like:
“I successfully presented an original and creative session at the VMware Conference 2018 to over 75 attendees. The overall feedback was very positive (see enclosed comments in supporting documents) and it led to follow-up meetings with customer ACME. The customer required features X and Y to be implemented before purchasing our product. I worked with the product team on the feature requests, tested and documented the prototype. The customer was happy and invested $$$$ into the product.”
Having reviewed so many other applications has improved my own way of articulating my value.
I wish I had practiced this my whole career.
I didn’t realise the impact of a praise can be – for the praiser and the praised individual!
I was recently running some internal assessment where our colleagues had to present a new concept and I was one of the ‘judges’. One of the participants was very nervous but she did a great job and I told her her presentation had been phenomenal. I won’t forget her reaction to what I thought was a well-deserved praise: she just looked elated. Her confident was boosted and I personally felt FANTASTIC about it.
But don’t praise unless you really mean it – artificial praising is meaningless. When I decided to praise five VMware women on International Women’s Day, it wasn’t just for solidarity but because they are brilliant in their own right.
Coaching is a more tactical – it’s primarily to look at getting a specific result or improving a specific skill.
I recently went through an internal evaluation and had to present to very senior stakeholders within VMware. I had a coach assigned to me who helped me prepare, improve my slides, my flow and who gave me some confidence going into the presentation. The presentation was successful and I was quick to thank my coach for his time. I’m sure he was glad and proud he contributed to my success.
I have been on that other side where I have coached a young graduate to help her being successful with her final admission into VMware. She was successful – to her own credit – but 4 years later, we still have a strong bond.
All of you have a skill of some kind – being a great presenter, excellent at programming, whatever – that you can coach into somebody.
Unlike coaching, mentoring is a more long-term relationship between a mentor and a mentee. The mentor would share tailored advice and guidance to the mentee but would also welcome some feedback via reverse-mentoring.
It has been fruitful and rewarding to see some of the people I’ve mentored grow while I hope the people I have mentored benefited from my advice and my previous experiences.
But in some cases, I could and should have done more. The nature of the mentoring was too informal and our relationship would have benefitted from a better structure.
As I was finishing writing this blog, I came across an internal session at the VMware R&D Innovation where several VMware leaders (Rajiv Ramaswami, Vincent McNeeley, Fanny Strudel, Mansi Shah, Sheri Byrne Haber and Bryan Liles) discussed mentoring and sponsoring. Sheri made the great point of surrounding yourself with diverse mentors or at least some who can share a diverse perspective from your own.
Bryan emphasized that, while mentors help you be ready when an opportunity presents itself, the sponsor makes that opportunity available.
Which leads onto the most impactful of all these activities…
Sponsoring means championing somebody to help them progress through their career, achieve an internal promotion or to get a speaking slot at a conference.
I have mistaken mentoring and sponsoring throughout my career but I found this book (recommended to me by Katherine) excellent at clarifying the differences and explaining the value of sponsoring.
A sponsor goes beyond the mentor – the sponsor invests their valuable political and social capital in their protégé.
The author of the book above found that sponsoring is particularly relevant and helpful for women and people of colour (I’ve been lucky to be sponsored by many black people myself). Where I would disagree with her is that you don’t need to be a senior leader to do that – you don’t have to be one to sponsor somebody (although of course, it helps). What you need are opportunities and connections.
When I have been fortunate to get a speaking slot at an internal conference, I would try to share the stage with a junior colleague to give him/her some exposure. An achievement like presenting to dozens/hundreds of colleagues would matter during a promotion process. Likewise, others have done the same for me and have recommended me for speaking engagements at events or conferences or gave me stretch opportunities to enable me to develop specific skills.
Sponsors give their protégés visibility, provide them with “stretch opportunities” and give them honest and critical feedback.
While mentoring is more unidirectional (the mentee typically gets much more out of the relationship than the mentor, unless the mentor actively seeks reverse-mentoring), what Sylvia Ann Hewlett argues in her book is that sponsoring is not only beneficial for the protégé but also for the sponsor. The protégé becomes part of the sponsor’s “brand”.
In your career, you will need the support from others to help you climb the career ladder. Look out for multiple mentors and especially sponsors. But you must give as much as you get. Be kind and show empathy. Praise and welcome others. Share your expertise through tactical coaching. Become a mentor or a sponsor yourself.
Think – when you retire, what will you remember? Some code you’ve written or when you sold some software to a customer? Or will you remember the relationships you’ve built through mentoring and sponsoring?