Over the past 20 years of my career, I’ve led many global teams at Fortune 500 companies. I know what it’s like to be the only female executive in the room.
Today, I coach CEOs at companies ranging from startups to multi-million dollar global corporations. And from what I’ve observed, no one takes the time to explain the “unwritten rules” of business and what it takes to get to the top.
Here’s one thing I wish more people knew – and had done early in their careers: learn how to nurture and navigate professional relationships.
Networking is much more complex than you think.
Between colleagues, clients, and friends, I’ve seen too many early and mid-career workers hit a professional wall because they don’t understand the three most important types of relationships: mentors, advocates and sponsors.
Each has a distinct role:
- A mentor advises and advises you, often based on their in-depth experience. They don’t need to be in your organization, but they should be able to offer ideas on how you can be more successful at work.
- A lawyer speaks in favor of your work and your talent, often in an informal way. It could be a former manager confirming your strong leadership skills, or a colleague pushing a manager to consider you for a promotion.
- A sponsor is usually senior and has strong organizational power. They put their own reputation on the line to vouch for you. Sponsors usually work at your current company or at a company you would like to work for.
Many organizations have mentoring programs, but never one sponsorship program — although I believe having a sponsor is the most important professional connection you can have.
This means that it is up to you to find your own sponsors.
Anyone on the shortlist to hire for a position is qualified. But what happens when three equally qualified people are vying for the same position? Often, the chosen person had a sponsor who advocated on their behalf.
I have seen the impact of having a sponsor on my own career. More than ten years ago, I was considered for a promotion to general manager at a global software company, where I would oversee a $100 million business unit with over 150 employees.
The final decision rests with me and another person. We were both equally qualified, but had very different skills.
While my competitor had a mentor to guide her through the interview process, I had a senior manager who sponsored me. He basically said, “I’ll put my reputation on the line to vouch for Liz. I’m confident she’s the best person for the job.”
I got the job and exceeded expectations. Most importantly, my upline made sure my compensation was fair compared to the other CEOs, who were all male.
In a 2019 study by Payscale, Inc.those who had a sponsor were paid 11.6% more than those who did not, because sponsors often make decisions about compensation and promotion.
Finding sponsors can take trial and error. Starting to build meaningful relationships early on means more time to identify and network with the right people. Here are four ways to get started:
1. Make a list.
Think of everyone you know: friends, family, colleagues, teachers. Label each person as a mentor, advocate, or sponsor. Then update the list once a month.
Understanding which relationships can fill which roles in your life helps you know where to invest your time and energy. Sometimes mentors or advocates turn into sponsors as your relationships deepen and they become more familiar with your work.
2. Invest in your colleagues.
Former colleagues are some of our best potential sponsors because they have direct insight into your skills. Get to know your colleagues better. Invite them over for coffee or lunch. Even a few jokes at the start of a meeting can pay off.
The best relationships are built on a genuine connection. Ask people about their life outside of work and share your own stories with them. Always be genuine and kind rather than being political.
3. Join organizations focused on topics you love.
Growing your network can also happen outside of the office.
The organizations you join don’t have to be work related – they just have to give you the opportunity to truly connect with others. You never know who you will meet!
4. Give back.
The most effective professional relationships are mutually beneficial. When you ask someone for mentorship, advocacy or sponsorship, think about what you can offer them.
Whether it’s an insight into a different market, an introduction, or your own advice, you need to have something to give back.
Liz TaxinNemiroff is the founder and CEO of Yellow Brick Advisors, where she helps investors and senior executives accelerate growth and scale. Previously, Liz spent a decade in senior roles at Thomson Reuters. Liz began her career as an investment banker and strategy consultant at Merrill Lynch & Co., American Express and S&P Global. She holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BA from Harvard College.