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Find a Mentor or Sponsor to Get a Leg Up

It's no secret that having a seasoned executive help guide you through your career can be extremely useful, but it's never too early to start looking for the right person.

Finding a mentor before starting your first post-MBA job could ultimately lead to higher compensation and a more senior-level position, according to a report by Catalyst, an organization aimed at improving opportunities for women and business.

"Having (a mentor) really early in your career can start you off in the right path and get that trajectory going at a faster rate," said Christine Silva, a senior director of research with Catalyst. "Our findings show that the earlier the better in terms of having people in your corner."

Starting Off Strong

Having someone in your corner is especially important for women, who Catalyst found typically started their post-MBA careers with lower pay and less senior positions than men. Also, according to Catalyst, men have more senior mentors, which can lead to more promotions and greater compensation.

Recommended books on mentoringIn addition to having mentors, the Catalyst report also revealed the importance of having a sponsor within your organization. While a mentor can provide career advice and guidance, a sponsor is someone who actively advocates on your behalf. In other words, a sponsor has a seat at the decision-making table and can advocate for you to get that promotion you want or talk you up to the bosses.

"A mentor helps you develop. A sponsor helps you advance," Silva said. "Mentors talk with you. Sponsors talk about you."


The difference can be essential to a career. A Catalyst study involving 93 men and women found that while mentoring was necessary for leadership development, it was not enough to advance a career to top levels. That's where sponsorship came in: it was found to be a way for women to overcome barriers and to benefit both the sponsor and the organization.

Sponsors are "really helping you increase your visibility," Silva said. "They might be getting you access to those influential leaders, also they can help mitigate any perceived risk there is to the candidate."

Silva said people should have both a mentor and a sponsor, and sometimes one person can serve as both. In fact, Catalyst indicated that people should have multiple mentors and sponsors throughout their career to ensure they have a good power base and continued support, even if one of their sponsors leaves the company.

Finding your Mentor

Early on in your career, when you may still be unsure about what your skill set is and how it can best serve you, a mentor can help.

"You should be seeking mentors in your MBA program just as you should in your career," said Susan Canfield, director of the MBA Mentor Program at the Foster School of Business and author of "Mentoring Moments." "A mentor is there to learn from, so why wouldn't you seek a mentor so you have opportunities to start learning in your MBA program."

If you're trying to find a mentor, it can be as simple as joining a mentoring program while earning your MBA. For instance, the University of Washington Foster School of Business, located in Seattle, is one of many schools offering MBA mentor programs.

"The possibilities for what (mentors) bring to you are endless," Canfield said "They can be a role model and they can expand your network broadly and they can expand your network in your specific profession."

About 90 percent of Foster's first-year students participate in the school's MBA mentoring program as well as about two-thirds of the second year students, Canfield said. The MBA mentor program includes 75 senior executives from the Seattle area.

The Mentor Relationship

A mentor can also help open doors and break down barriers, according to Rene Petrin, whose Boston-based company, Management Mentors, helps organizations implement successful corporate mentoring programs. Petrin said finding a mentor is about building a long-term relationship with someone whose focus is to help you develop both professionally and personally.

The mentor relationship is mutually beneficial to both the mentor and mentee, according to Petrin, and both parties change from it. Others may benefit from the relationship as well. For instance, a male who mentors a female colleague may become aware of issues facing that colleague that he didn't otherwise know about.

"They can form strategic partnerships that empower not only themselves, but other women as well," Petrin said.

Additionally, successful women are excellent role models for women MBAs who are wondering how to integrate their careers into their lives, said Canfield with the Foster Business School's MBA Mentor Program.

A mentor, she said, can empower women MBAs to figure out what they want in their career and to ask for it.

"Who doesn't benefit from somebody in their lives who's invested in their success and is there to provide feedback to provide guidance to answer questions," she said. "That benefits all of us."

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