From Mentor to Sponsor: Enlisting Others to Help Boost Your Life Sciences Career

Approach Mentor

In the second decade of the 21st century, the concept of mentoring has expanded and gained greater importance for job-seekers and careerists. A 2010 study by the Catalyst organization found that mentoring is important but insufficient for career advancement. Career experts advocate having both a mentor and a sponsor.

Author Sylvia Ann Hewlett popularized the “sponsor” concept in 2011 in the Harvard Business Review, following her article up with the 2013 book, Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor. Hewlett particularly targets women as beneficiaries of the sponsor concept, noting that women in the workplace are held back by a “surprising absence of advocacy from men and women in positions of power.” Women may gain the most benefit from sponsors, but men can enlist them as well.

Marissa K Fayer outlines the specific benefits of being sponsored in the life sciences field. Fayer is CEO of HERHealthEQ and president of Fayer Consulting, LLC:

  • “Sponsors, especially in life sciences, will help champion you to others in your organization (or outside).
  • Sponsors are your cheerleaders and can serve as your professional ‘social media’ publicist.
  • As the life sciences industry is traditionally male-dominated toward the top, if you are a woman and looking to continue to advance as the same pace as the men around you, having a sponsor (of either gender) as a champion can help even the stakes.
  • Sponsors in the life sciences industry can help a person see outside the traditional silos we work in, which is incredibly important with the changes happening in the industry.

Mentors can guide you, help you, take you under their wing, and nurture your career quest. What separates a mentor from the average network contact is long-term commitment and a deep-seated investment in your future. And what separates a sponsor from a mentor is that a sponsor will actively champion you and advocate for your advancement. They help you attain important project assignments and promotions. Typically, the sponsor will even benefit from your advancement.

How exactly do sponsors differ from mentors? Hewlett succinctly sums up the difference in her Harvard Business Review article: “Mentors proffer friendly advice. Sponsors pull you up to the next level.” A few additional differences include:

  • Mentors are generally in your field but don’t necessarily work in your organization, while sponsors are part of the senior-level team at your workplace and are invested in your success.
  • Sponsors share their network connections, while mentors typically guide you in how to network.
  • Sponsors double as role models, demonstrating the kind of behavior that leads to advancement.

See more differences in a comparison chart by Maryann Baumgarten.

How to Find a Mentor

Check first to see whether your current employer, your college alma mater, or other organization with which you’re associated already has a formal mentoring program in place. In these structured arrangements, participants are sometimes given personality assessments so that “mentees” can be matched with compatible mentors. Other organizations have found that when mentors and mentees are very different, greater opportunities for discovery emerge.

Sharoni Billik, CEO and founder of SBHC, a medical-affairs professional-services firm, suggests attending professional-organization meetings in a particular therapeutic area and going to conferences. She also cites groups like the HBA (Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association) and Biocom in California. “Be friendly and start conversations. There are many people who would like to help,” Billik states.

To find a mentor on your own, identify someone you admire and respect. You can choose someone from your own place of employment or outside it -- or both; some people have more than one mentor. “Serial mentors,” those with whom you have a short-term relationship, one after the other, work well for some people.

Consider a peer mentor – someone at your own level – because they will share many of the same issues and challenges you face.

Avoid a mentor who is too controlling, judgmental, or a know-it-all. Look for a positive, upbeat attitude -- someone who will become invested in and celebrate your success. The mentorship is especially productive when the mentor believes he or she can learn from you, and the relationship is a two-way street.

How to Find (or Be Found By) a Sponsor

As stated, a sponsor needs to be a high-level executive in your own organization. Sponsors may seek you out if you are a promising performer, whereas mentors usually need to be recruited. A mentor can also grow into a sponsor, says Fayer: “The best way to find a sponsor is to find someone in a position you want to be (at least 2-3 levels ahead of you), and ask them for advice.  If you “click” with them, you follow their advice, and tell them what you did with their advice then they will give you more and naturally become your sponsor.”

Since it’s more common for a sponsor to choose you than for you to select the sponsor, you can target prospective sponsors through stellar performance and ensuring prospective sponsors know about it. To decide whom to target, ask yourself who in your company makes decisions that affect you, who can benefit from your advancement, and whose network would be most effective in helping you. Baumgartner expands on these questions in a tool that enables you to list possible sponsors that fit these categories.

Step up to take on extra projects and don’t be afraid to toot your own horn so would-be sponsors recognize your initiative. Be clear about your career goals and ensure prospective sponsors know of your ambitions.

Final Thoughts

To enhance and advance your life sciences career, don’t hesitate to pursue both a sponsor and a mentor.

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