Yesterday, I spoke on a women’s panel at the Executive Women’s Day event put on by the PGA as part of the FedEx St. Jude Classic golf tournament. It was equal parts fun and inspiring, but mostly humbling and slightly terrifying as I looked out onto a room of powerful women and tried to offer honest and helpful insights from my heart and my experiences. Of course, the woman next to me on the bus ride over to the event venue would be a woman who had a 30+ year career at Fed Ex as an executive, is serving on an appointed role for the Governor of Tennessee, has started a brand new consulting business, is going natural with her hair and trying on a whole new look and is a leader of her LINKS chapter. That right there was enough to make me want to plead with organizers upon arrival: “You’ve got the wrong girl! Pick someone who has more to offer!” But, there was no time to spare – the show started immediately.
People were kind enough not to boo me off stage and to say nice things after (for all the “mean girls” talk, I find women to be largely great encouragers of one another). And the very woman who wowed me going in, came right over after to compliment me and thank me for my insight. When I told her I thought we should have traded seats, she was so kind to state that my words inspired her as she started on a whole new journey to reshape her life and live as her true self. Why do we so easily forget that God often uses our words to deliver the messages He has for others?
So as we near the halfway point on 2014, I have decided it’s time we all get and give a little help. I’ve written this year about practicing grace, being bold, staying positive, and the power of prayer and reflection. All great topics (in my humble opinion 🙂 ), but all self-driven. At the six months mark, it’s time to call in the reinforcements and start reinforcing others.
One of the most powerful parts of the Executive Women’s Day was the keynote speaker, Carla Harris. THANK THE LORD I DID NOT FOLLOW THIS WOMAN ON THE STAGE! WOW. Two degrees from Harvard, nearly three decades as a titan on Wall Street, gospel recording artist, appointed by President Obama to chair the National Women’s Business Council, author and named by Fortune Magazine’s list of “The 50 Most Powerful Black Executives in Corporate America.” Are you getting this picture? The lady can BA-RING it!
She shared five pearls of wisdom from her book, “Expect to Win”. All were great, but one in particular stuck out to me. It was the way she redefined the entire concept of mentoring. I love mentoring. Both, for the opportunity to help others and for the incredible knowledge I gain. I have often advised people to cultivate the Board of Directors for their life. In other words, surround yourself intentionally with people who can honestly advise you as you grow in your life and find success in whatever way you define it for you. The dear friend who will always tell you the truth, even when painful. The spiritual advisor who can help strengthen your soul. The cheerleader for the days when you need a huge lift. The financial guru and the lawyer. Always the lawyer. Lord knows when you will need one at 2 a.m. to get out of jail.
Carla totally transformed my thinking on the specific roles of those people. She believes you should intentionally cultivate three types of people: the advisor, the mentor and the sponsor.
• Advisor: The advisor is the person you go to in order to ask the dumb question you think you should already know the answer to, but don’t. The one who can give you context in an organization and help you connect the dots. This is your buddy. The one who will shoot you straight and not judge or use your dumb question against you. I have been blessed to have one of these folks at every job, including one who has just come back to work with me after serving as my first boss! Get one of these. Better yet, BE this person for someone else as well.
• Mentor: The mentor is one you tell the good, the bad and the ugly to. Your hopes and dreams. The next job you want and helps you get there. Carla teaches that it should be someone who knows YOU and who has context for your situation. It doesn’t have to be someone in your organization, but someone who does understand the business you are in. I am beyond blessed to serve in this role for a number of people, and am always honored when someone asks me to mentor them. True mentoring is a highly personal engagement and it’s not lost on me that people are trusting me with their hopes, goals, dreams, warts and bright spots. If you are lucky enough to find a great mentor, treasure this person. Personally, I recommend you also live your life so that someone seeks you out to serve in this role. You’ll get far more than you give.
• Sponsor: The sponsor role was my biggest “aha.” Carla reminded us that much of our career or place in an organization, for those who do not work in a corporation, is decided when we are not in the room. The next promotion, the salary we receive, the committee we sit on…are all typically decided when we are not present. So the sponsor is the person you tell the good to. Just the good. They are your advocate. They sing your praises. They have a seat at the table and they spend their own personal capital on recommending you.
Too often we think of our mentors as this role, but this is a VERY different and VERY important role. Your mentor can likely suggest sponsors for you. Be intentional about cultivating this person. I have seen first-hand how important these roles are in the boardroom. We have been intentional about cultivating “sponsors” for one my mentees. I was just too dumb to know what to call it! When it came time for him to be promoted and be recommended for a major assignment, nearly every executive around the table stood up to sponsor him. Powerful.
Do you have your Board together with these three roles on it? If not, what is holding you back? Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone you trust, someone you admire, or a leader in your organization. Ask them to have coffee or lunch and ask them some key questions. How did they get where they are? What are their perceptions of you? (another great lesson and recommendation from the book on choosing your personal adjectives. I’ll leave it there so you are teased enough to buy the book!). Ask them formally to serve in one of these capacities for you when the time is right. The worst they can say is no. But I will bet you will get the yes more often. Most people are honored to help.
Lastly, start serving in this role for others and live in a way so that others will seek you out for this type of help. As Carla shared, you can only get so far in life with your smarts and hard work. It’s your network, your Board that will ultimately help you achieve success as you define it.