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Leaders Grow and Thrive When They Build Community

Build a community of mentors, sponsors and coaches to reach your full professional potential


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As a woman in the male-dominated world of tech startups, Lizelle van Vuuren encountered a familiar challenge. Elbow-deep in the work of developing her business, she wanted to learn from others who had walked along the same path.

Looking around, she told Inc. magazine, she wondered where all the women were.

So van Vuuren did what any entrepreneur would: She created something new to address the need. She began by convening a group of female entrepreneurs to share experiences and learn. Although her focus remained on technology, she didn’t close the door to women from other sectors. The group eventually became Women Who Startup, which will host its annual summit this month during Denver Startup Week. From its humble beginnings, the group has transformed into a global community dedicated to transforming the face of entrepreneurship.

The story is instructive because van Vuuren instinctively understood that leaders develop better when apart of a community, even if they’re starting a business independently. Indeed, history illustrates pioneers need supportive networks of coaches, mentors and sponsors to reach their full potential.

Here’s what each group offers – and what you can do to make the most of these critical relationships.

COACHES:

“Let’s Go Over the Game Films”

Just like an athlete, hopeful business leaders need coaches to assess their strengths, evaluate existing challenges, offer skill-building opportunities and provide feedback and accountability. If you work in an organization, your manager may function as your coach. As you advance into senior leadership or start your own venture, you may work with an outside coach to gather stakeholder feedback and develop a customized growth plan.

By its nature, the coaching relationship is focused on you and your needs. It’s generally time-limited and built around individual goals, objectives and performance measurements. It’s important to feel comfortable with your coach, but your focus will be on developing new skills, not on an ongoing, mutually supportive relationship.

Your role as a “business athlete” is to be an accountable learner. Show up mentally for every session. Follow through on new skills and be open to feedback. If you do, you’ll become a sought-after player in no time.

MENTORS:

“Are You My Mother?”

We all remember Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tale, “The Ugly Duckling.” Lost and confused, a young bird anxiously approaches other animals in search of his mother – the all-wise guide who will illuminate his place in the world.

Too often, young professionals approach senior colleagues in a similar way. They envision mentoring as a one-way flow of advice and encouragement, rather than as a two-way relationship based on mutual interests, respect and support. Not surprisingly, these mentoring relationships often die a quick death, if they’re forged at all.

This problem can be averted if you re-envision mentoring to welcome guides when and how they appear. Rather than pursue a senior leader you barely know, look for mentors all around you based on genuine mutual connections. Mentors can be respected peers, junior colleagues with different backgrounds and perspectives or senior leaders with whom you share values and interests.

Regardless, your role in a mentoring relationship is to give as much as you get and genuinely care about the other person. Mentoring isn’t about achieving a goal; it’s about building a two-way relationship that offers perspective, support and encouragement.

SPONSORS:

“Go Out and Make Me Proud!”

One of the least discussed but most important members of your growth network is your sponsor. Generally a leader within your organization or industry, a sponsor will advocate for you, help raise your profile and open doors to advance your career. Sponsors have professional, financial or political capital, and they’re willing to spend it on your behalf.

If the idea of recruiting a sponsor sounds crass, I’d like to gently suggest you get over it. As a Harvard Business Review report titled “The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling” showed, sponsors play a critical role in allowing women to reach the professional summit. (Men benefit from sponsors as well, and they’re more likely to seek them than women.)

Finding a sponsor can be challenging. The best approach is to network regularly within your industry and organization, know what you want and need and step forward to ask for support when the opportunity presents itself.

What is your role in the sponsor relationship? To justify your sponsor’s faith in you. Do everything within your power to make the most of the opportunity that person has provided. In short, make them proud.


Susan Heinzeroth is principal and lead strategist of SageRiver Consulting, a strategic management consulting firm dedicated to facilitating meaningful change in organizations and communities. Her firm offers leadership development, team building, organizational development and change management services to organizations throughout the country. She also mentors emerging leaders as a faculty member of the Institute for Career Advancement Needs and as an adjunct faculty member in the business management schools of the University of Colorado at Boulder, University of Colorado at Denver and University of Denver.

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