Forget Mentors. Find a Sponsor.
Mentors are all the rage right now. Every week there’s a new article about why you need a mentor, and how to find one. Don’t get me wrong — mentors are hugely valuable in helping you chart your personal growth, providing meaningful guidance and expertise. But cultivating a relationship with a mentor is a marathon, not a sprint. Of course you should seek a mentor, but it takes time and energy, and a deep personal investment. It ain’t easy.
When it comes to your career, start with low-hanging fruit. Consider the power of sponsors — your Spartan cheerleaders. Chances are, you probably already have a few in your midst. Individuals who consistently sing your praise, who go to bat for you when you’re up for a new project, mobilizing a community of supporters on your behalf. Now consider what you could achieve if you put more time into strengthening those relationships.
When I reflect back on my career, it’s been punctuated by people who believed in me. People who used their influence to advocate for me. People who championed my ability to take on a new role that didn’t line up with my resume. Sure, I had drive and some experience, but at every one of my career milestones, there was also a single person who took a calculated risk and rallied others to support me in a new venture — a sponsor.
Two weeks before college, headed to law school, I abandoned ship and hopped a flight to Chicago. I had no idea what the future would hold, but I knew I wasn’t ready to grow up and suit up in a corporate job. My pockets were light (with less than $1k to live on) and I was hungry for work. My first week in the city, I landed a gig in a brick and mortar women’s clothing store. Pavo Real had launched in Boston in the 1970s as one of the original Faneuil Hall Marketplace vendors, selling hand-knit sweaters from Peru and Bolivia. Since then, the company had expanded to locations across the country, building an impressive customer database along the way. The timing was right to bring the business online.
After just a few months, one of the founders, Mindy Brush, took a leap of faith and made me a partner to lead our transition online. I had zero eCommerce experience. I had zero production experience. I had zero online marketing experience. I was so painfully green. But I was fluent in Spanish, I was filled with blind ambition, and Mindy believed in me. She began to introduce me to vendors and designers, teach me about yarns and zippers, and open one door after another. Within the first month, I found myself in factories in Lima overseeing production, wire-framing our new website, and shipping product. Mindy’s generosity in shepherding me through new territory was astounding. She built up my confidence and championed me along the way. She was my sponsor.
Fast forward a few years and a few companies later. I met davebalter, my current partner, former boss, and always advocate. Together with Jennifer Lum, Michael Troiano and Cort Johnson (and later Nicole Stata), we hosted an epic party — the Dave Balter Tech Prom. Our energy was magnetic. Dave and I knew instantly that we had to collaborate again. With so many accomplished entrepreneurs in Boston, and so many newcomers eager to learn the ropes of building a business, it seemed only natural to find a way to bring these two groups together to learn from each other. Before knew it, Intelligent.ly was in the works.
When I met Dave, I was a total noob. Growing up, people told me I could be a lawyer, a doctor…never an entrepreneur. Dave put up a small seed, and his conviction and his confidence propelled me into action. We didn’t have time to question our ability to launch—we were on a mission. In less that a week, we had a website, space, and a full lineup of skill classes. People like Michael Troiano, Jeff Bussgang, Dharmesh Shah, David Cancel, Fred Destin, Christopher ODonnell, ❖ Aaron White, Katie Burke and more volunteered their time to share their expertise with the Boston startup community. It sounds so simple now...and it really was. All it took was support from Dave and a community of friends. The next thing I knew, we were operating a real business. Four years later, Intelligent.ly has helped thousands of people across Boston learn new skills and become leaders. Dave believed in me before I believed in myself. He was my partner, but he was also my sponsor.
Two years later, we were pouring our hearts and souls into building another company together — Smarterer — and achieved the startup dream. We sold to a big company (Pluralsight). A company that was totally aligned with our vision, a company that had the team, customers, and revenue to help bring our shared vision to life. There was just one problem — I didn’t know where I fit into our new world order. I navigated the integration of our companies and hurried to find every employee a home in a new role, leaving myself for last. Then it was time to make a move.
Most of my career had centered around leadership roles in marketing and operations, but suddenly I found myself at a crossroads — stay in my comfort zone or venture into new territory? During the acquisition, I’d gotten close to Aaron Skonnard (CEO)and Greg Woodward (CFO/COO) at Pluralsight, and approached them to understand where they saw opportunities in the business. We talked through a few areas that could be a potential fit, including a role on the management team leading people operations, i.e. next-level, tricked out, operations-infused HR. Dun, dun, dun.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that people operations was the last role that would have crossed my mind. The last. Greg and Aaron saw something I hadn’t — the opportunity to leverage marketing, analytics and operations to bring a fresh perspective. The chance to help scale an incredibly rich culture by thinking methodically about how to prepare for doubling our growth year over year. Together, they sold the idea to the rest of the leadership team and rallied support within the company. I didn’t have direct experience, but that didn’t stop them from believing my approach could be transformative. Greg took me under his wing, offering support, guidance, and coaching. Most importantly, he was a constant source of positive reinforcement. Greg was my sponsor (and a pretty great mentor along the way, too).
Consider what motivates your sponsors to advocate for you; maybe they have a personal gain by seeing you succeed inside your organization, or perhaps they just get satisfaction from helping a new leader grow and evolve. The ball is in your court to identify what drives them, and ensure you deliver on your end. Then it’s your turn to give back — who will you sponsor?
(Clap, clap, clap.)