If you want to be the most effective leader you can be, you can’t do it on your own. Sometimes that means making sure you have specialist support on a nitty-gritty level – team members to delegate to, or support around practical things like childcare. But today I want to talk about 3 people every leader needs on her team beyond those specific roles. These are essential levels of support for your growth on a wider level, and if you’re serious about making a difference they’re not to be ignored.
What do we mean by team?
Before we start, a quick note on what I mean by “team”. I’m not talking necessarily about the people you work directly alongside, or manage, as part of your day to day job. They might not be directly connected to your current role at all. Here, I’m using team in a much wider sense – the people you’re connected with who can help you move in the direction of your goals.
A metaphor we often use in our leadership training is that of the “leader as weaver”. In a piece of fabric, every single strand is supported by – and supports in turn – every other strand. We can’t point to a beautiful bolt of silk and say that this strand is more important than that one. Every single one is important.
When you think about your unique and vital role in this world, it’s really helpful in my experience to remember that you’re not doing it on your own. Your role, and your purpose, is unique to you. But in fulfilling your life’s work, you’ll also be supporting a whole network of others – the other “threads” which are touching yours – in big and small ways.
And in turn, everyone you come into contact with has the potential to enable you to shine that little bit brighter. So today I want to walk you through 3 really important people you’ll want to have in your wider network in order to make you the most effective leader you can be.
3 people every leader needs on her team
1. A sponsor or mentor
Let’s start with sponsors and mentors. If you imagine a grid network of threads in a piece of fabric, with you in the middle, we could think of them as being above you. That’s not to say they’re more important, but when it comes to the difference you’re trying to make they might just be a little bit further along the path.
I define mentors very simply as people who have walked the path before you. They care about you and they’re available to answer questions, but they’re not proactively furthering things for you all the time, necessarily.
Sponsors, on the other hand, are a particular subcategory of mentors, which are people who have a very vested interest in your success – people who really want to open doors for you.
- If you’re in an organization it might be someone in the C Suite that’s taken a particular interest in your journey
- It might be someone inside your church group who’s really watching out for you and checking in on you every Sunday
- It might be a teacher or facilitator who you connected with some years ago, and have stayed in touch with
It’s someone who deeply cares about your career path, or deeply cares about the wellbeing of your project. Someone who, for whatever reason, is particularly interested and is actively working for you, almost as much as they work for (and sometimes maybe even more) than they work for themselves.
If you’ve experienced that kind of support, you can probably recall how good it feels. Mentors and sponsors have the wisdom and experience to reassure you when you hit a bump in the road, or to remind you that you’ll make it through the specific challenges you’re facing. They might have specific advice or they may simply be there to say “keep going – you’re doing great” or “this is always how it feels at this stage”.
They may be able to smooth your path and make introductions; warn you of potential pitfalls and difficulties; or put your day-to-day difficulties into perspective.
Sponsors and mentors: a warning
If you’ve only got sponsors and mentors, you can run the risk of feeling “less than”. Which makes sense, doesn’t it? You’re only comparing yourself to those that are further along or more awesome.
In fact, in a worst-case scenario you can sometimes find yourself falling into victim mode, or getting a bit co-dependent and saying things like “This isn’t working because my mentor is not doing what they should be.”
Over the years I’ve mentored a lot of business people, and sometimes people join Business Masterminds thinking that my role as leader is to somehow “fix” whatever’s not working for them. It’s an unhelpful mentality, which rather than helping you grow can ultimately hold you back.
The best way to guard against that is to make sure the other elements of your support network are in place.
2. A charge, or mentee
Now, going back to this idea of a woven “grid” pattern, when a fabric is woven together there are also going to be threads running beneath yours. These are just as important as the ones above you when it comes to supporting you and holding you in place.
These are the people I call your charges, or mentees. People for whom you’re a bit further on the path, and who you’re helping along.
A charge is the flipside of the mentor/sponsor – someone very special, who you care about, and who you’re wanting to get doors open for.
So you might be acting as a sponsor to them and really driving things forward, actively networking on their behalf and helping create opportunities.
Or perhaps you’re in more of a mentor role, there to answer questions or perhaps have informal check-ins on a regular basis, just to share the benefit of your experience.
If you’re being mentored by someone yourself and you’ve found yourself falling into the trap of only comparing yourself to them, then becoming a mentor to someone else can be an incredibly powerful experience. Suddenly, you’ll become aware of how much you do know about your industry or profession. You might find there are aspects of your role you’ve been completely taking for granted – but when you’re asked about them, you realize that you really do have some expertise to share.
One surprising bonus of having a charge is that they can also bring a fresh perspective. The Zen concept of “beginner’s mind” states that someone who’s new to a challenge often has far more ideas for how to solve it, because they’re not constrained by ideas of how things are “always done” or that “could never work”. So being a mentor can help invigorate your own work in surprising ways.
Alyssa Wrapp is the managing partner of AJR venturers, a management lecturer at Stanford University, and a wife and mother. In a piece for Forbes magazine she shared the benefit she’s found of ensuring she has both these kinds of support in her network:
“As a mentee, I have benefitted from the deep experience of people who have made a personal investment in me; as a mentor, I have accelerated other people’s learning and career growth just by investing time and insight, which has been incredibly gratifying. Furthermore, when I take the time to mentor someone, my company or organization often benefits from this relationship.”
The third pillar of support that’s essential for you as you contnue your leadership journey is your peers. One way to think about them in this “fabric” metaphor would be as the vertical threads running along either side of you.
Your peers are those people that are at the same level as you on the journey. Not further along the path, not less along the path, but about the same level.
They’re there to champion and cheerlead you, have fun with you, and inspire you when you’re feeling a bit down. They might be a group you’re a part of, like a mastermind, or your cohort in an extended program like our year-long Lead the Change leadership training.
In your workspace, they’re people who are at roughly the same level as you when it comes to experience and responsibilities; they might be your fellow mums, or your business network.
When you get together with people who are on exactly the same part of the journey as you, you get to laugh about stuff together. Often, there’s a real relief that comes with poking fun at the daily frustrations of your role or debriefing about what you’ve recently learned. That kind of cameraderie can really lift you up.
If you don’t have peers, and you’ve only got those that you’re looking up to, and those that you’re helping along, it can feel like a pretty lonely old journey. Because you don’t necessarily feel the fun, and the love, and the inspiration with those relationships. And they’re not as attuned to the details and the challenges that you’re experiencing day in and day out on your path.
Connected, integrated, aligned
Every layer of this support is necessary if you’re going to truly thrive as a leader.
Because without this strong fabric of support, we can end up feeling quite isolated. We can feel alone. We can end up in superwoman. And we can feel either smarter than everyone or dumber than everyone depending on which elements of the fabric are missing.
So, we want to be able to orientate ourselves as close to the truth of how things are and feel as supported as is possible. This is the state in which we’ll experience the most profound, and sustainable, growth.
How strong is your fabric?
- Take a moment to reflect for yourself on these 3 people – sponsors or mentors, charges, and peers. Can you identify one person fulfilling each of those roles in your life right now? Can you identify more than one?
- If there were a few actions that needed to be put in place to strengthen out that fabric, what might they need to be?
Take a couple of minutes to give some thought to that, and jot down some ideas. And if you’d like some specific support around a particular area of your life and are interested in joining one of our retreats or leadership trainings, click here to find out more about our programs.
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