Huffpost Women
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Caroline Dowd-Higgins Headshot

Build Yourself a Personal Board of Directors

Posted: Updated:
Print

It's no secret that a mentor can be a terrific resource as you navigate your personal career path. Seeking a mentor starts simply with asking for advice from a trusted professional who has "been there and done that" in your industry. Start by asking for information and advice and see how the relationship develops. You will know when you have made an authentic connection with someone and taken the relationship beyond colleague to the level of personal guru.

Mentors help to improve upon your strengths and lead you along your path to success with inspiration and resources that come from experience. A mentor can also help you set and accomplish your goals. Mentors will guide you and offer practical ideas about how you might do things differently. We all need at least one mentor that can speak candidly and offer constructive criticism, even when we don't want to hear it.

You can gain a wealth of support and resources with a mentor and build the confidence you need to reach out to others that have valuable advice to share, adding them to your resource team. Sometimes these relationships develop organically and sometimes you need to take the driver's seat and ask others for help.

Mentors volunteer their time and experience so always show them your respect. Listen, don't argue, and always follow up with a personal thank you note or gesture of gratitude. The mentor relationship is powerful and valuable, so cultivate it wisely and be mindful of how you can help others and continue the circle of wisdom by becoming a mentor yourself.

Mentor vs. Sponsor

In 2011, sponsorship is becoming more main stream and savvy women (and men) should be on the lookout for those who can assist them in moving upwards on their career journey. While a mentor can answer your questions and advise on how to navigate the organizational landscape, a sponsor will actually get you there.

A sponsor knows your accomplishments well and will sell you to others that do not know you in your organization and beyond. Your sponsor puts her/his reputation on the line for you and gives you a professional endorsement that gives you clout and credibility. You may actually spend more contact time with your mentor discussing your innermost doubts and issues, but your sponsor is willing to put their name out there for you in order to help you advance.

It's important to keep your sponsor well-informed about your accomplishments so they can go to bat for you and recommend you for key projects that will help you distinguish yourself in the organization. It's possible to have a mentor and a sponsor and you should look for both. While you are at it, assemble a full team of people to assist you on your professional journey.

I am a firm believer in the power of a personal Board of Directors. The "it takes a village" philosophy is alive and well, but you need to mobilize your people so they know how they can help you. It's important to seek out their collective wisdom effectively.

When seeking your Board of Directors look for a variety of people including an Accountability Master to hold your feet to the fire on goals you aspire to achieve. A Motivator is essential to keep you focused and enthusiastic about your career game plan and a Connector will help you enhance and develop your network. Your Strategist is a visionary that can help you map out the big picture while a Specialist might include anyone from your accountant or lawyer to your personal trainer or physician. You should assemble a myriad of supportive people to help you navigate different segments of your career journey.

How Do I Find a Sponsor?

Assembling a Board of Directors is relatively easy since you ask for advice on a particular topic on as as-needed basis. Finding a sponsor is a more delicate task. You should seek out someone in your organization that is well-respected and influential. Once you identify a potential sponsor, introduce yourself, earn her trust and respect, and then begin to share your value-add with strategic information about your accomplishments and goals within the organization.

You must be courageous in developing new relationships while searching for a sponsor. This may not be someone who looks like you. Reach across generational, gender, and racial boundaries to develop new and meaningful professional relationships. Your sponsor will most likely be a stretch relationship while your mentor may be a personal confidant with whom you already share a lot in common.

Securing a sponsor also focuses on the need to develop professional relationships internally and externally in your career field. You should be innovative in getting to know people beyond your rank and pay grade in your organization as this is the most likely talent pool for a sponsor. Someone who is a lateral counterpart will not have the clout you need to help you move upwards and serve as a sponsor.

Another strategy is to become more visible by volunteering to work on key projects that prospective sponsors will also be involved in. Distinguish yourself, be a consummate professional and make your potential sponsor also look good, and you will earn the opportunity to ask a sponsor to consider you as a protégé.

Remember, sponsorship must be earned, so it's imperative to build a relationship with respect so you can demonstrate your worth and value to the organization. A sponsor won't put their reputation on the line by endorsing you unless they are confident in your abilities to go above and beyond.

You have the power to mobilize your professional team. Seek out multiple mentors, assemble your Board of Directors, and earn the opportunity to gain a sponsor. These individuals are all instrumental in helping you move forward with your career goals because it really does take a village. In the spirit of "paying it forward," give some thought about who you can advise as a mentor, Board member, or sponsor as well.

Caroline Dowd-Higgins authored the book "This Is Not the Career I Ordered" and maintains the career reinvention blog of the same name (www.carolinedowdhiggins.com) She is also the Director of Career & Professional Development and Adjunct Faculty at Indiana University Maurer School of Law.