The first event entitled “The Importance of Mentors and Sponsors” in the Executive Institute’s Women in Leadership series looks at how mentorship or sponsorship can help overcome barriers in the workplace. Ahead of the event, supported by Allianz, we sat down with our own Chief Underwriting Officer Helen Merry to reflect on her own experience with mentorship and its value in her career.
Have you ever had a mentor or sponsor at any point in your career?
Yes, I have been fortunate enough to have had both over the course of my career.
In what ways do you believe this mentorship contributed to your career path, success, personal life, etc.?
My mentors over the years have helped me to navigate through new and challenging situations.
One of the most influential mentors I have had was my manager when I moved to my first people management role. This wasn’t a formal mentorship relationship; however, I was very fortunate with this particular manager as he really supported me and my development.
My first child was born within my first year working as a manager. Coming back to work after maternity leave is a natural inflection point. It is a bit chaotic when you return to work; there are lots of logistical challenges, you’re tired; it’s a time when many women question what it is they want from their careers.
My manager was a male, which proves that a mentor doesn’t have to be another female to make a difference. He was flexible, worked with me, and most importantly said and did enough to reassure me that he still had confidence in me and still saw potential in me, which helped to allay my own self doubt. He played a really important role in my development and success.
I have also had a very positive experience in a formal mentoring relationship, one that has endured for over six years at this stage. That mentor has really helped me practically in terms of understanding our business from an overall perspective beyond the functional area I work in. She has supported, guided, and advised on many topics over the years.
What aspect of this mentorship structure did you benefit from?
For me, the benefit of the mentorship structure is that it exposed me to mentorship and the benefits it can bring. Having the right person as a mentor is the critical first step.
How would you, personally, define mentorship/sponsorship? Do you believe mentorship or sponsorship is more beneficial?
For me the simplest way of distinguishing between the two is that a mentor advises you; a sponsor advocates for you. Both have a place.
Have you ever mentored/sponsored a colleague?
I have never sponsored a colleague. I have mentored a number of colleagues on an informal basis over the years. For me, developing talent and supporting good people to reach their potential is one of the most rewarding aspects of leadership and it’s something that I really enjoy. I have recently begun mentoring a colleague on a formal basis for the first time as part of her development programme.
What do you believe are the potential benefits/outcomes/measurable results of mentorship/sponsorship?
In my opinion, mentorship/sponsorship can really help more people to reach their full potential. It can make a huge difference in helping people to see the potential in themselves and building the courage and self-confidence to keep pushing forward.
Having a supportive mentor to guide and advise through challenging and new situations can be invaluable. Think about it: you can learn from someone else’s previous mistakes rather than having to make them all yourself!
Is there value in creating a formal structure for mentorship/sponsorship, or should it happen naturally?
In an ideal world, formal structures for developing mentorship/sponsorship relationships wouldn’t be required; they would happen naturally. In reality, I feel that formal structures are necessary and they help people (both mentors and mentees) to experience the benefits.
Once people have experienced a good mentorship/sponsorship relationship I think they are far more likely to continue to build other productive relationships. So having those formal structures in place helps to create an environment where mentorship/sponsorship relationships are more likely to occur naturally – a kind of positive reinforcement.
Should mentorship/sponsorship be integrated into a company’s on-boarding process?
I think that there’s certainly merit in speaking to new staff about the merits of mentorship/sponsorship and letting them know that developing our people is a priority for the company. I see benefits for companies and individuals alike in encouraging people to seek out mentors/sponsors at an early stage. I certainly would have appreciated that type of support at an earlier stage in my career.
What are your recommendations for finding a mentor/sponsor who is a good fit?
For a mentorship/sponsorship relationship to work well it’s absolutely critical for a mentor and a mentee to connect on a personal level; there has to be a chemistry there. No matter what a mentor’s experience is on paper, if as a mentee you don’t connect or feel comfortable with the person, then the relationship isn’t going to work well.
What would you recommend as a good length of time for mentorship/sponsorship?
I don’t honestly believe there is an ideal duration for a mentoring relationship. For so long as both parties are getting something from the relationship it can continue and grow. Sponsorship is particularly useful when a protégée is working toward ‘the next move’, and in that sense a sponsorship relationship can come to a natural conclusion.
That said, in my experience, a good mentor can evolve into a sponsor and advocate at a point in time; and similarly a sponsor can continue on to be a good mentor even after the goal of the sponsorship has been achieved. If it still feels right, then it probably is still working. If it feels forced and is an effort, it’s probably time to move on. Go with your instinct would be my advice.
Register to attend the Executive Institute’s The Importance of Mentors & Sponsors event Wednesday 29 January, 2020 from 11am-2pm.
Learn more: https://www.womenleaders.ie