Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
January 30, 2019

Does Mentoring Really Make a Difference? For Women in Media, the Answer is "Yes."

There’s no such thing as a truly self-made leader. Mentors, sponsors and role models from both professional and personal areas of life all play a role in one’s career development. Without them, we’d lack knowledge, confidence, and the benefit of accelerated experience that are all critical for moving ahead. Spencer Stuart recently convened with several accomplished women in media to identify the common themes where someone else’s exposure, support or advocacy played a role in guiding their career advancement.

Organic sponsorship
Many leaders commented that they gained the most support from sponsorship relationships that developed organically. High performance and demonstrated potential led to a trust-based relationship with a superior who, in turn, elected to back the emerging leader with his or her own political capital.

While sponsors are often supervisors or others who exert influence on an organization, they may not necessarily be in a direct line of command. They could include board members, former supervisors who have moved to another part of the organization, or others with the power and influence to help someone advance. It’s worth recognizing that not all organizations have a strong bench of leaders willing to develop the people beneath them, so it is important to position oneself in an environment where there is a track record of strong internal sponsorship.

Earned mentorship
Occasionally, these leaders sought out formal mentorship relationships with people who may or may not have been in their direct line of command. The best arrangements are those in which the mentee puts effort into the relationship, recognizing the high value of the mentor’s time. Preparing one-pagers on a given topic to kick-start a conversation can serve to focus the learning as well as offer the mentor value-adding content (e.g., insights on emerging trends to discuss, interesting data from his/her own work, etc.).

Since a mentee who is not on the direct staff of a mentor does not formally contribute to the mentor’s work agenda in these arrangements, the responsibility sits with the mentee to invest selflessly in the relationship to insure it is symbiotic, and create a balanced exchange. If one is going to seek out a formal mentor, the most fruitful experience will come from a focus on gaining insight into the “superpower” of the chosen mentor, versus expecting that person to serve as a generalist in providing career advice.

Successful leaders have a responsibility to continually ask themselves, “How am I helping others advance in their careers?”

On-the-spot advocacy
Productive relationships are not always long-term. Sometimes it is “in-the-moment” advocacy rather than wholesale sponsorship that propels someone forward. A person can benefit from many advocates throughout their career who give breaks along the way.

In many instances, we learn how to operate, problem solve and behave simply by watching others whom we consider to be role models. In this context, the role models’ role is limited to allowing us to observe, perhaps as we sit in on meetings or get copied on sensitive email exchanges. The savvy learner will watch carefully and pick up clues, recognizing the true value of these opportunities even when a formal two-way exchange is not created.

Peer-level networks
Some successful leaders we spoke with continue to collect valuable ongoing advice from a set of trusted advisers who have no direct connections at all to their professional networks. They may instead contribute valuable peer-level experience from different industries and sectors. Keeping these networks distant from both professional networks and close friendships can create a safe zone where the deepest levels of counsel and advice can be exchanged. Properly maintained, these networks can span many years and grow in value as each member becomes part of another’s long-term journey.

Room to fail
A boss who delegates true responsibility, yet remains accessible when needed, gives leaders the room to learn important lessons firsthand. Eliminating the fear of failure further reinforces that a certain amount of risk-taking is OK — and even necessary — when moving the needle on a business. Many of the women we spoke with were fortunate to work under bosses who gave them enough runway to experiment, fail and learn.

Ignoring gender boundaries
Interestingly, the mentors, sponsors, role models and advocates identified by the women media leaders in our discussion were mostly men. This was observed to be largely circumstantial. It remains a fact that there are not as many women executives in senior leadership positions as there are men, but that should not inhibit one’s ability to find sponsorship. It also has not been a barrier to those who have found success. At the same time, all the women in our conversation recognized a responsibility among women to go the extra mile in providing support and opportunity for rising women leaders. To increase the balance at the top, we all need to reach down and pull others up.

Giving back
Whether part of a selfless mission or even exchange, all mentors, sponsors and advocates give to those they support and develop. Sometimes bonds form over common values, or genuine interest in guiding another person’s development. With young leaders changing jobs more frequently than previous generations, some more senior leaders may worry about investing in a relationship that does not provide a return over the long term. This dynamic may place even more responsibility on the rising stars to lean on less active role models, and more on on-the-spot advocates and peer-level networks that transcend their day-to-day fields. More transient leaders may need to work harder at actively recruiting on-the-job sponsors and mentors by insuring a valuable short-term exchange. In every case, the best forms of career development involve a two-way street of exposure and support, and an overall balance of giving and receiving.

Odds are that every successful leader has felt the benefit of one or more mentors, sponsors or role models throughout his or her career — beginning at a time when his or her most valued asset to offer in exchange was “potential.” Established leaders will continue the cycle of both giving and receiving throughout their careers. Most importantly, successful leaders have a responsibility to continually ask themselves, “How am I helping others advance in their careers?” If leaders continue to invest in mentees, both sides will benefit greatly.

Kate Hurley is a consultant in the Technology, Media & Telecommunications and CEO practices, and is based in Stamford and New York. She works with clients across the media and technology industries to help them find CEOs and other senior leaders who will have a lasting impact on their business. Reach her via email and follow her on LinkedIn.

Meg Wilson is a media, entertainment and consumer internet expert and a member of the Technology, Media & Telecommunications and Digital practices. Based in Los Angeles, she works with companies spanning traditional media and entertainment, gaming/eSports, and new digital platforms. Reach her via email and follow her on LinkedIn.

Rekha Koshy is a consultant in the Consumer and Technology, Media & Telecommunications practices and is based in Mumbai. She has more than 15 years of consulting and industry experience, and a deep understanding of the leadership needs in India’s fast-growing media and entertainment sector. Reach her via email and follow her on LinkedIn.