Mentors, Sponsors, Role Models and Heroes

Today I found myself remembering a #FF paean that Brent Salisbury issued to Martin Casado a few months back:


It got me thinking of people who have affected the course of my career, and also about why some stand out more than others. In a few cases, I’d struggled with what to call them, and that definitely affected the course of those relationships.

In theory, we all know what a mentor is, and that we should have them. One of the more interesting insights I’ve heard on this topic is that one should have at least three kinds:

  • One within your field and within your company or organization
  • One in a different discipline within your organization
  • One in a different company, and possibly a different industry

The idea here is that the one “closest” to you will have the most knowledge and actionable insights with regard to your immediate landscape, challenges and opportunities. The others are there to help you look at things from angles you might never otherwise consider. The key to such relationships is trust. You need to feel comfortable exposing your uncertainties and weaknesses, and know that they won’t count against you, in order to gain from the relationship.

A sponsor is a slightly different thing. Rather than providing 1:1 counsel and guidance, the sponsor acts as your marketing committee and personal agent.  The sponsor is putting the power of his or her own reputation and network to work on your behalf, so in return you’re obligated to make your sponsor look good as well as yourself. Competence is critical here, as well as social graces and general good behavior. In the world of management journals, the sponsor is a powerful, well-connected senior executive, but in reality, it can be anyone who has built a strong platform and is willing to extend it, with appropriate selectiveness, to help showcase the talents of others. The original TED organizers would be one set of examples. In the tech realm, Stephen Foskett (@sfoskett) has actually built a business doing just this, with his Tech Field Days.

A role model is someone who holds a role you aspire to, and performs in it in a way that you admire. You may or may not have a lot of direct interaction (if any) with your role model, but you can learn a lot just by observing what they do, how they do it, what works for them and what doesn’t, and why. That person might become either a mentor or a sponsor, but this isn’t necessary for benefitting from their presence in your world. You do need to be perceptive and analytical. Many times even very competent people don’t exactly know why they do certain things, or why certain things work for them. Having the perspective of an independent observer may allow you to spot things they themselves are unaware of.

Finally, if you’re lucky, you may have one or two real heroes whose influence causes you to profoundly alter the course of your career. That emphasis is important. Hero worship can inspire but also inhibit, if self-comparison causes you to feel small and lacking. If your admiration leads you to accept uncritically all of your hero’s views, rather than to ask new kinds of questions that you’d never thought of before, you will shrink rather than grow from that exposure. A hero is a catalyst for jolting you out of a predictable path and set of habits. But from there, it’s your journey. Own it. Your new passion may be the only guide you have, and in pursuing it you may find yourself doing all kinds of things you would never have imagined even a year or two earlier. It can be terrifying, plunging into all manner of things you’ve never tried before—perhaps have actively avoided—but the new understanding you gain of yourself and your own capabilities as a result can be life-altering. Even if your hero doesn’t ever know of your existence at all.

I’ve been fortunate to have had several of these types in my life so far, though not all. The biggest mistakes I’ve made have been not clearly discerning who should be what. There may be overlaps between these roles, but the kind of person who serves one purpose in your life isn’t necessarily the best for helping with the others. In order to sort out where someone fits, I’ve learned to ask myself:

  • What do I want to do or achieve?
  • What do I need to figure out in order to do it?
  • Who are the people who can help me with the different things I need to learn?
  • What do I need to do to develop those relationships?

And also: What can I offer them in return?

And when someone has opened a door for me in what’s turned out to be a significant way, I say thank you. With specifics about what I’ve learned from the opportunity. In a handwritten note on nice stationery (yes, really). One of the wiser things I’ve been told is that you never really know what effect you have on others’ lives, so I make a point of making sure they do know. It’s something meaningful I can offer in return.


One comment on “Mentors, Sponsors, Role Models and Heroes

  1. Pingback: Mentors, Sponsors, Role Models and Heroes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s