Executives haven’t been doing a lot of mentoring in the past 20 months. They haven’t been around a lot of the people who could use their help, and they may not have thought about how they could do such work from afar. That needs to change, said Curtis Odom.
Odom, a professor at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business, discussed strategies for developing coaching, mentoring, and sponsorship in the new workplace during MIT Sloan Management Review’s recent Work/22 virtual symposium on the challenges leaders can expect to face in the year ahead.
Many managers got where they are because they were supported along the way — someone took an interest in them, helped them grow into a new job, or advocated for them at a crucial moment. Someone, as Odom put it, was “literally willing to carve off a piece of their brand and hand it to you.” Sometimes that opened doors that might have been invisible before. If that beneficiary was you, said Odom, now is the time to pay it forward.
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He defined three roles that leaders can take: coach, mentor, or sponsor. They differ slightly from one another. A coaching role is short term and situation driven, can be done by a direct manager, and requires only a slight personal connection. A mentor role is long term and relationship driven; it should be done by someone other than a manager, but a personal connection is beneficial. Importantly, the mentee needs to own the relationship. A sponsor role is longer term and trust driven, does not involve a direct manager, and requires a deeper personal connection. In this relationship, the commitment is made and nurtured by both the sponsor and the candidate.
Within these roles, leaders offer emotional support, feedback, and advice for personal and professional development. They can teach mentees how to navigate corporate politics and provide guidance that increases mentees’ sense of competence and self-worth.
For leaders considering taking on these roles — and for potential mentees — one of the critical factors is understanding where the onus of responsibility for initiating interactions sits. “As you go into these relationships, maybe you’re thinking that the other person’s driving all of it,” Odom said. “Maybe you’re sitting around waiting for someone to tap you gently on the shoulder.” Figuring out the dynamics is harder when people aren’t seeing each other in person.