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How To Enhance Your Career Through Mentors and Sponsors 

Pam Habner  |  February 22, 2024

Early in my career, I was a self-proclaimed workaholic. I was constantly heads-down – analyzing data, developing strategies, driving projects and writing presentations until they were “perfect.” One day, my mentor took me aside to give me some candid advice. She shared that although my hard work was being recognized, to be truly successful, I needed to let go of delivering 150% and go out to lunch more. The conversation was a major wake-up call. I was viewing work through a prism that was too narrow – it’s more than just the deliverables. Instead, I was missing the opportunity to build and nurture relationships with my colleagues. This was a turning point in my career and since then I’ve been intentional in seeking the right mentors and sponsors.

But finding the right mentors and sponsors for you is easier said than done, so here are five pieces of advice for those looking to make the most of their career journeys.

1. Know the difference

While both are crucial, it’s important to delineate between mentors and sponsors. A mentor is somebody who you can go to for trusted guidance. Think of them as the ideal sounding board that can flex to serve different purposes – including advisor or confidant – depending on what you need.

On the other hand, sponsors are advocates who go beyond advice, paving the way for your career path. Sponsors are people who have worked with you personally, can vouch for your expertise and serve as a reference for a new assignment or job opportunity. While you can seek out mentors through networking, every day is an opportunity to build a sponsor relationship by doing great work.

2. Build relationships without borders

Connect with people who are successful in all parts of the business, regardless of where you work. This helps expand your diversity of thought, challenge your preconceptions, and build an appreciation for what it takes to be successful in other functions. Be proactive in reaching out to different colleagues to learn about the various challenges they face and skills they utilize every day. I attribute much of my readiness for my current role, Head of Citi’s Branded Cards and Lending business, to taking the time to learn about as many different roles as possible and building a cadre of relationships within and beyond my team.

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While reaching across businesses won’t immediately secure you a mentor or sponsor, it will accomplish two important things. One, it will raise your profile within your company and spread awareness of the expertise and skills you bring to the table. Two, you’ll get better at networking and establishing relationships outside of your comfort zone.

3. Embrace non-traditional mentors

Don’t just look upwards. Fostering peer and reverse mentorship relationships is just as effective and important as traditional senior mentors. However, for it to work, both parties must be open-minded and humble.

Throughout my career, I’ve taken on new leadership roles and needed to learn how to steer the ship while it was already on the water. In times like these, I’ve relied on peer and reverse mentors to help show me the ropes, break down barriers and be my truth tellers when I needed them most. I have one peer – who joined Citi around the same time as me – who’s become a go-to sounding board; another is a mentee who became my social media guru.

New perspectives don’t need to come from the top down. Embrace non-traditional mentors and people who encourage you to flip the script and challenge conventional wisdom. This can be fruitful when your team brings a new product or service to market. The launch of our Citi Travel site brought this advice to life. I took the time to sit and listen with so many members of our cross-functional team who come from backgrounds essential to the product’s success. In this scenario, I was the student and the mentor, an intersection I hope to never leave.

4. Take conversations outside of the office

I have learned over time that the tenor of a conversation immediately changes when you leave the four walls of the office – or occasionally nowadays, the screen of a video chat. Since creating a meaningful connection is a key ingredient to building lasting relationships, pick a place you like to grab coffee or go for a walk, and you will find it easier to build a more authentic relationship.

If you’re in a junior role and meeting up with a senior leader, this can be intimidating. Check for their bios online, ask friends for their insights and even have some questions prepared ahead of time. But don’t stress too much; remember, they were once in your shoes, and they may be excited to become someone’s mentor or sponsor!

5. Build connections within your community

Don’t limit yourself to your current place of work. I am also an advocate of establishing connections outside of work. Get involved in industry associations, volunteer activities or board membership. Doing so has unlocked doors for me; my friendship with a fellow board member of a non-profit led me to a significant career move that I would never have learned about otherwise.

These tips may help guide the way, but they aren’t foolproof. Not every leader or peer will be a perfect fit as a mentor or sponsor, and that’s okay. The genuine connections you make will flow easily and those will be the ones that matter most and endure over time.

So, prioritize the truly necessary deliverables and skip meal delivery when you can. Make and spend time with your colleagues. They are an essential source of guidance, your backup and opportunity. And to my mentor who told me years ago to go out to lunch more, thank you – the next one’s on me.

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