Take along a Coach, a Mentor, and a Sponsor on Your Career Journey

There is an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This proverb speaks to many things, including the importance of relationships and the value of cultivating an inclusive mindset.

In terms of relationships, research has proven that there are three critical relationships you need to grow your career: coach, mentor, and sponsor. Often conflated, they are, in fact, three different concepts.

The Coach

The coach helps you up-skill and take your performance to new levels. The relationship is relatively transactional, focused, and within defined parameters—you need to improve your performance, and a coach uses her or his expertise to help you learn the skills necessary to achieve the desired outcomes. For example, if you are a tennis player who desires to improve your stroke, you hire a tennis coach to improve your technique. At work, if you desire to better understand the fundamentals of your organization’s balance sheet, you might enlist support from someone in Finance.

Data suggests that underrepresented groups tend to not feel comfortable in coaching relationships because of the transactional nature. Consequently, we run the risk of wasting precious time in the development journey because we do not sufficiently leverage coaching as a development platform. Get over the discomfort. Figure out where your development needs are. Break those needs down to manageable components. Scan the environment for people who are good at what you want to be good at. Make the ask.

The Mentor

Mentors tend to have a more comprehensive view of who you are on and off the job. They use that knowledge and holistic viewpoint to help you think through your various career choices. For example, when I was evaluating Freddie Mac as my next career destination, I consulted with a former boss with whom I’ve maintained a relationship for two-plus decades. Because of our history, he was able to help me think through all the nuances of accepting the new adventure.

Research shows that women and underrepresented groups tend to over-mentor, as we feel more comfortable with the make-up of the relationship. Have a mentor or two for sure, but, not at the expense of or as replacements for coaches and sponsors.

The Sponsor

A sponsor is generally a senior person willing to use her or his reputational capital and influence on your behalf. The sponsor is someone privy to the proverbial closed-door meetings and in a position to speak favorably of you and advocate on your behalf.

Research has shown that sponsorship is one of the differentiators that help women and other underrepresented groups break through the glass ceiling. The best way to secure a sponsor is to consistently do good work—and talk about it.

Along your career journey, it’s imperative that you leverage each of these relationships, as each one plays a role in helping you reach your career goals.