Do you have a champion or a mentor?

Where are your champions?

You’ve probably heard the hackneyed advice for career advancement: “It’s who you know, not what you know.” But how do you know who you should get to know? Figuring out who you should cultivate relationships with when time and energy is limited isn’t always straightforward.

After interviewing over 200 professionals from diverse backgrounds and industries for Project Ascendance, we found one relationship trumped the others when it comes to ROI: the champion. The individuals we spoke with described the people who advocated for them in and out of their own workplace—their champions—as pivotal to  their career success.

What’s more, when we asked participants to reflect on their professional experiences and tell us what they wished they had done differently, the most frequent regret they shared was not seeking out champions sooner. While these champion/protégé relationships are rarer than mentor/mentee relationships, our participants showed us that they can be developed over time.

There are, however, fundamental differences between mentors and champions. In a mentor/mentee relationship, the mentee receives most of the benefits and the mentor expects little in return. In a champion/protégé relationship, both people make a greater commitment to each other and have more at stake. Championing is a deeper more reciprocal relationship that requires mutual trust. Below is a quick guide for distinguishing between your mentors and champions.

 

Mentors help you decide where you want to go.

Mentors are the people in your professional circle who provide you with insight into your organization, your strengths and your weaknesses. They can also serve as role models. In our interviews, we found that mentor relationships typically occur around affinity or social proximity: mentors tend to be immediate supervisors or more senior individuals in an organization who take an interest in a mentee because the mentee reminds the mentor of herself at a younger stage in her career. They may also share similar backgrounds, identities, or cultural experiences.

Mentors are advisors to you. They are people who like you and want to see you succeed by offering wisdom and advice that’s grounded in their own personal experiences, without the expectation that you will provide them with much more in return. A critical caveat: while mentorship is valuable, research demonstrates that women do not reap as many advancement benefits from it. Women are as likely as men to acquire mentors, but women tend to have mentors who are at lower levels in the organizational hierarchy, and these mentoring relationships are less likely to yield the desired career advancement (Catalyst, 2010). This is what makes champions so valuable: they are seasoned, senior professionals with the ability to increase their protégé’s visibility by tying their protégé’s reputation to their own.

 

Champions are the ones who will get you there.

In contrast to mentors, champions take your career aspirations and make them a reality. These more rare individuals are not just advisors for your career, they are active advocates for you. Champions pin their reputation on their protégé. In return, the protégé delivers results for the champion.

If you want to turn a mentor into a champion or are wondering if you might already have one, see if any of the following characteristics describe your relationship:

  • Reciprocal: Champions invest in their protégés, and vice versa. The partnership should be mutually beneficial.
  • Visible: Champions are willing to publicly advocate for a protégé and connect them to other high-profile individuals.
  • Constructive: Champions challenge protégés and offer critical feedback about weaknesses and blind spots.
  • Instrumental:  The purpose of the relationship isn’t to be friends, but to be professional allies that nourish each others’ careers. A champion pushes a protégé to the next level and gives her air cover to take risks; a protégé makes sure a champion’s project is executed successfully and sets the groundwork for a strong legacy.
  • Influential: A champion sits at the decision making table, has organizational clout, and can eliminate barriers to her protégé’s ascendance.  

Champions don’t necessarily have to be located within your organization. They just need to be invested in you and have the right connections to help you get to where you want to go in the next stage of your career. But they can only do that once you’ve identified—often through mentorship—what that next stage is. As one woman we spoke with put it, “You have to come to the table with something. You have to have at least some inkling of how you want to shape your career. Because if you don't know what you want, you'll take anything. When you take anything, you might end up down a path that's not going to be good for you.”

Finally, keep in mind that these two relationships are mutually beneficial and can work in concert with each other. Mentors will likely be able to help you define what you’re good at and connect you to champions who can advocate for you. To identify your next champion, you can begin the process by asking yourself which senior leaders might have a network that would benefit you, which of them would benefit from your unique set of skills, and who is in a position to introduce you to that person?