Leaders who reach the pinnacle of their professional goals don’t do it alone. Behind every success story is a solid support network.
Everyday support comes from partners, friends, and family, but a support network is much more. It’s made up of people who, in their unique, individual ways, can help us to thrive, grow, and achieve our professional goals.
Kathryn Heath, founding partner of Flynn Heath Holt Leadership, posits that a solid support network consists of people who fulfill four distinct roles: mentors, advocates, sponsors, and truth tellers. You can rely on your support network to help you do everything from navigate office politics to chart a successful career path to give day-to-day feedback. The people in your support network do not have to work in your company or even in the same industry, but it helps if most of them do.
Here is how each unique support network role is defined. Take stock of who is in your system now and figure out which roles are missing — or get inspired to build your support system from scratch.
A mentor is someone in your company who, through their greater years of experience, can offer advice and guidance and share their experiences and best practices. The mentor relationship is typically one-way, although being a mentor can be greatly fulfilling.
A mentoring relationship can be a two-way street when it is a reverse mentoring relationship. In reverse mentoring, a junior team member exchanges skills, knowledge and understanding with someone more senior. This kind of mentoring offers many benefits and can create a lasting impact within an organization. It increases the retention of millennial and Gen Z workers, empowers new hires to speak up, promotes diversity, and improves new workers’ critical business skills.
People should have several advocates in their support network. These are the people who enjoy working with you and can speak on your behalf, advocating for your skills and talents. Advocates don’t have to necessarily be in senior positions — they can be peers, direct reports, or senior leaders.
Truth-tellers offer a sounding board for honest feedback. They typically enjoy a close, trust-based relationship with you and want to see you succeed. It’s because of those dynamics that they are unafraid to provide constructive criticism when you need it. Truth tellers can be peers, friends, or even family members.
Sponsors are the members of your support team with the most influence. They are typically in senior leadership, and have the power and seniority to make things happen. A great sponsor is an influential ally who believes in you and is enthusiastic about publicly endorsing your talents, helping propel your career forward.
When I coach leaders, I often have them take inventory of who makes up their current support system. Do they have someone who fulfills each role? Typically, people can easily name their mentor, and maybe two or three advocates. Truth tellers and sponsors are much more difficult to identify. Some leaders realize they don’t have people in their lives they can look to for honest feedback, or people in their company who are their enthusiastic sponsors.
If you are taking inventory of your own network and realize you don’t have a sponsor, consider “promoting” a mentor to a sponsor. The sponsorship relationship is more collaborative than the mentorship one, with sponsors having more day-to-day exposure to your talents and abilities. A sponsorship relationship can also be reciprocal — while a sponsor is invested in your future and can help develop your career, they also learn from your unique skills and experiences, areas they may be missing.
We don’t have to navigate the challenges of building a career alone. With the help of our mentors, advocates, truth tellers, and sponsors, we can give one another the support we need to reach all of our goals.