Fifty years ago this August I led my first training program (although I did not know it was called that). I was a youth leader at a retreat for high school leaders from across New Jersey who were brought together for a week to discuss race relations, ethnicity, religious differences, stereotyping, prejudice, and the like. This was simply called human relations. By coincidence, the day I was asked to lead a group in a discussion on “How Am I Different?” was the same day as the March on Washington.
When I returned to my high school I wanted to continue to teach what I had learned, but there was no official mentor or support to help me take what I had learned into my own community. However, my English teacher, Miss Caldwell, rose to that position for me. She was an extraordinary teacher who dedicated her life to her students. Miss Caldwell called me up after class and told me that rather than read My Antonia along with the rest of the class I would read Another Country by James Baldwin, even though it was not on the curriculum.
Through Miss Caldwell’s guidance and support I began to organize meetings of high school students to address issues of prejudice and racism in our community, a subject the adults largely refused to acknowledge. I have Miss Caldwell to thank for 50 years of doing what I love to do as a university professor and corporate trainer, continuing to promote the virtues of mentorship.
As we look at the state of training and development, we need to remember that the best knowledge transfer comes from trainers and teachers who had the greatest impact on our lives. Most likely it was not simply someone in front of a class or on a screen, but someone who guided you into applying yourself to new endeavors. Those who affected us the most were those who took an interest in us—our mentors and sponsors.
Identifying mentors and sponsors in the global economy
Finding mentors and sponsors is not an easy task, even domestically. Many leaders select people to mentor who remind them of themselves when they were younger. This has the effect of limiting the number of women and other underrepresented groups receiving mentors and sponsors. As a result of this inequity, many organizations create mentoring and sponsorship programs for underrepresented groups.
In today’s global economy, rising talent would be wise to identify mentors and sponsors in another part of the world. For example, if you are in a remote location it might make sense to have a mentor based in the country in which your company is headquartered, or perhaps to have a mentor in the country of your customer base (if it is different from your own.) The challenge, of course, is to find and foster that close connection from afar.
Intersection of training and development with mentors and sponsors
The lessons from this can be applied to the best practices in leading companies. Training professionals have the great opportunity to play a critical role in making introductions between stellar performers in programs and potential mentors both domestically and overseas.
While millions of dollars are spent on leadership courses and thousands of corporate managers have benefited from programs sponsored by Linkage and The Center for Creative leadership, those who have become leaders not only learned the message but have found mentors and sponsors who made all the difference in their careers.
Difference between mentors and sponsors
There are important distinctions between a mentorship and sponsorship. Mentors generally provide guidance and advice on an ad hoc basis. It tends to be more reactive than proactive. Sponsors, on the other hand, become advocates for their protégés. They not only provide guidance, but they connect their protégés to important people and assignments.
In effect, a sponsor is puts her reputation on the line in support of her protégé. In response, the protégé is expected to live up to and exceed the requirements of any new responsibilities or position. In many ways the relationship is mutually beneficial and long term— and hopefully spans across the globe.
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