How leading women have worked with mentors and sponsors

Do successful leaders really benefit from being mentored or sponsored and what impact does it actually make? Three women at the top of their game reveal what mentors and sponsors have gifted them.

This article is part of the Women’s Agenda Mentee’s Manifesto, supported by Charles Sturt University. This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.

Before becoming a renowned researcher, winning numerous grants and blowing the whistle on neglect in aged care, Charles Sturt University associate professor Maree Bernoth was a young lecturer happy hiding away in her office.

After completing her PhD while working as a registered nurse, Bernoth still didn’t feel worthy of being an academic.

However, her passion and advocacy caught the attention of two senior leaders in her faculty.

“One of those ladies came to me and stood at the door of my office. She said it’s time you apply for a grant.”

This gentle push helped Bernoth break out of her comfort zone.

“I didn’t feel worthy of applying for grants. But they got me applying for them. They were building my self-belief and getting rid of that imposter syndrome that so many of us seem to have.”

For Bernoth, being backed by empathetic leaders who listened and understood her when she needed it most was invaluable.

“Those women pulled me back and showed me how important it is to attend to detail and that then enabled me to ensure that there was credibility in what I was writing. It was challenging and confronting and hard and I spent some time in tears, but it was important.”

The gentle push I needed

The same two leaders who mentored Bernoth also become her sponsors.

“They’d take me to the coffee shop, which is a great place for networking. They introduced me to other people that they’d been working with from other schools or people they knew socially and it was from those informal meetings that common research interests were identified. And that then led to very large grants and significant publications.”

Today, Bernoth is a highly experienced academic with her largest grant yet being for more than $350,000 to research participatory care for older people.

“I watch new academics come into the school now and because of my experience I understand the support those new academics need. If we don’t have mentors for students and other academics and even industry partners, there’s the chance that they won’t reach their full potential. There are lost opportunities for exploring, for research, for learning [and] they may leave.”

The power of vulnerability

After winning a tender from the Northern Territory government to run school programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls, Stars Foundation founder Andrea Goddard became a “first-time CEO”.

“Starting a new organisation from scratch came with many new challenges.”

She works with a mentor whom she found through Kilfanan Australia, a formal mentoring program for CEOs of charities. They meet every couple of months for about an hour-and-a-half.

“She’s helped me build and gain confidence in my own abilities.”

Recognising the need for guidance and reaching out for help requires a bit of vulnerability but the rewards are worth it.

“It was pretty vital that I led by example and demonstrated to my team that I was open to learning. [To] say very honestly to people look I don’t know everything.”

The difference between a mentor and a sponsor

One of the key differences between a mentor and a sponsor is that one will guide you in your job while the other will help you navigate your career.

Zendesk’s managing director for Australia and New Zealand, Amy Foo, puts it this way.

“My mentors are people I look up to. They may not necessarily have a direct connection with your career per say, but they have experience and have shown success and seniority so they can provide unbiased, navigational support.”

Sponsors, on the other hand, have a more vested interest in your success so they tend to come from within the organisation you work for.

“Sponsors have protégés. Our career advancement will give advantage to them as sponsors so they’re more directly connected to the outcome of our careers.”

For Foo, both mentors and sponsors have been instrumental in helping her transition from a traditional finance role into an executive at one of the fastest growing tech companies in the world.

She now heads a team of more than 200 people.

“You need both mentors and sponsors in your career.”

Ready to make a difference?

At Charles Sturt University, we know that support and guidance can help you achieve anything. Combine that with cutting-edge courses, and you’ll be ready to make your mark in your chosen industry – and inspire others.

Contact us to find out how we can help you.