Recently, I was asked to participate in a speaker series/panel discussion based on the book “Forget a Mentor – Find a Sponsor” by Sylvia Ann Hewlett. The speakers were given several book related themes to choose from and the one that stuck out to me was “Embrace Your Dreams – Build Your Castle.” It stuck out because unbeknownst to me, I had just recently done this very thing.
My journey was accidental in some ways. On June 27, 2011, I thought I was happy. I thought I had found my castle. I thought I was living my dream. I had seniority in my current role and the respect of my colleagues. I had a high-performing that consistently exceeded expectations. I was able to work with a high-degree of autonomy. But my world changed the very next day when my company was acquired. That meant major changes in the way I did things, the processes I followed and my position in the company. Over the next 12 months I tried to adjust to the changes but it came became very clear that my ceiling had been lowered and reached. What was I going to do?
My boss had repeatedly told me that acquisition means opportunity, I just couldn’t see it. I had been on the giving end of acquisitions many times before and knew in reality not everyone survives and years later acquired companies are barely recognizable. Internally, I wasn’t happy and for the first time in years…work felt like work. I began rehearsing what I would say if I ever had the chance to speak with someone who could give me another opportunity. On October 17, 2012, I got my chance. During a skip level meeting with a senior leader, I decided to be open, candid and ask for what I wanted. Up to that point in my life I had never done that.
During that meeting, I expressed that I was unhappy and that work felt like work now. I told him I was ready to do something different and I was capable of so much more. I told him how I felt my career path had practically disappeared with the acquisition and I needed a chance to do something different. After an engaging dialogue about my dream job and wish list of things I was confident I could accomplish, that leader said he thought I would be a great fit for a leadership development program. I’ll never forget seeing him write himself a note diagonally on a piece paper asked me to give him 2 weeks. He said he would get back to me. I said “Yeah right” under my breath. Not really knowing this leader well, I didn’t hold out much hope that he would make this a priority.
To my surprise, he came through by staking his personal reputation on me and my potential. This is when I learned the difference between mentor and sponsor. He became my first sponsor. But he surely wasn’t the last. His sponsorship as well as that of countless others provided me with the opportunity, time and space to realize that I wasn’t working in harmony with my dreams. I wasn’t living my castle. I was merely renting one that someone else had built.
The leadership development program he referred me into gave me an opportunity to see what my castle was meant to be. It was never meant to be built around contracts and licensing. It was to be built around helping people. People like my sister. People who suffer from mental illness.
This experience helped me muster up the courage to ask for sponsorship in a major way. I asked for a role that would surely help me embrace my dreams. I got that role and I couldn’t be happier. In fact, I ran in to someone I hadn’t seen in a while and they told me I was glowing. Working on and living in your castle everyday has a way of doing that for you.
I think we all come to a crossroads at times and have to choose between what we know and what we love. My best advice is to never be afraid to ask for and go for what you want. No one will just hand it to you but they will offer you a hand if you ask for it. Mentoring helps you stand strong in your current space. Sponsorship helps you move along to a new one. Castle’s aren’t built overnight and they take a lot of sweat and tears to materialize. But I’m living proof that with sponsorship, it’s possible.