Allies, Mentors, and Sponsors

Starting something new can be a daunting task. Whether it’s starting a new project, moving to a new team, or transitioning to a new role in the company. It can be intimidating to accept the fact that you don’t know everything. Some people have a difficult time asking for help. They think it makes them seem weak, when in truth it’s the exact opposite. Asking for help makes other people feel needed. It also enables you to build relationships with people who could become potential allies, mentors, or sponsors. There is that old saying “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know that counts”.

The differences between allies, mentors, and sponsors

Mentors are your sounding boards.  They provide a resource to help you practice ideas, level set on issues as they arise, and gain advice on the proper way to handle various workplace issues. The mentor / mentee relationship is a two-way street, they can be formal or informal, and you can have more than one mentor.  Some companies have an official mentorship program where mentors and mentees are matched up.  Some of those relationships continue long after the program is over.

Sponsors, on the other hand, go to bat for you. They put your name in the hat for new assignments and – this is the important part – believe in your talent and skills, and are willing to stick their necks out to help you advance your career. A sponsor, usually a senior leader in your organization, has a direct ability to give you opportunities versus advice about how to maximize them.Sponsors are attracted to people who perform at a high level and have a well-known reputation that inspires trust.  Building solid relationships with senior management and making sure they know about the good work you are doing will help.

Allies are peers, coworkers, higher-ups, sponsors, direct reports, and anyone who supports your efforts to get you where you want to go. Strong and mutually beneficial alliances can help each party to survive and to thrive, and to get things done more quickly and smoothly than if they were to go it alone.

The ideal time to engage allies is when you’re starting a new job. It will bring you support and establish your credibility faster than anything else you might try. But it’s also a useful technique if you’ve been in your job for a while. Here are some tips on how to create alliances:

  • Offer help – Offering to help someone with their work is the fastest way to make an ally. They are more likely to return the favor.
  • Ask and listen – Communicating effectively with each other forms the foundation for a positive work alliance. Open lines of communication keep information, opinions, and support flowing. Put yourself in your ally’s shoes and respect their point of view that may be different from your own.
  • Do quality work – When working on a project together, always put forth your best effort. Be the person who is willing to do extra to strengthen the collaboration and the outcome or product. Produce work that allies are proud to support.
  • Show appreciation – Everyone loves to feel valued and appreciated. Take a few minutes to tell someone THANK YOU.
  • Follow up – If you say you will do something, do it. People need to depend on you and the deadlines to which you commit. Developing trust is key.
  • Publicly promote your ally – Support your colleague’s ability to accomplish his or her mission. Give credit for ideas and solutions. Publicly express support for your ally’s desired direction. Be among the first to verbally support the idea and connect them with others.
  • Spend time together – Be available to listen, to strategize and to occasionally eat lunch together.
  • Resolve any disagreements early – Unresolved conflict may fester under the surface and undermine alliance-building and mutual, purposeful progress toward accomplishing personal and organizational missions.
  • Treat your allies as equals – No matter their position within your organization, all people are equal; they just have different jobs. Show everyone from the janitor, all the way up to the CEO, the same level of respect.
  • Join groups – Groups like the Women in Tech, are a great way to meet allies in other organizations.

These might seem like small asks, but they fulfill the purpose by pulling people into your network. A willingness to form alliances is the lifeblood of a successful career. So you’ll want to get comfortable reaching out at the first opportunity.