How to build a support network of mentors, sponsors, coaches, personal cheerleaders and more

Most of us have heard the saying: “you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with”. For impact-driven leaders, game changers and ambitious trailblazers however, that circle of five is only the beginning.

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

Whether you’re navigating your first CEO role, leading groundbreaking research or building a non-profit from the ground up, having a dynamic, inspiring and engaged support network to tap into at any time is crucial.

But a network of mentors, sponsors, coaches and cheerleaders who are excited to see you grow is not built by accident.

According to Charles Sturt University strategic professor and conjoint chair of Allied Health and Community Wellbeing Gail Whiteford, we all need to actively cultivate, build and invest in our professional relationships overtime.

“You have to be conscious about your networking,” she says.

With a “really strong international network”, Whiteford has found that new doors, connections and opportunities will come to you from across the globe.

Having a diverse support network of professionals from a range of different industries and backgrounds can also be a great source of inspiration and empowerment.

University of New South Wales associate professor Caroline Ford, who leads a group of scientists that research gynaecological cancers, has found this to be especially important in an industry where women are still a minority.

“All of us require honest feedback from peers, colleagues, mentors or sponsors,” Ford says. “But you also need a cheer squad.”

A cheer squad may include loved ones like partners and family but it can also be a group of peers who inspire you.

So how do you find people like this and start building a network that you can tap into for inspiration, support and advice?

Here’s a four-step guide to get started.

Step 1: Be brave and reach out

Start. Switch off that fearful voice in your head and look around you. Whether it’s a successful business leader or a trailblazing peer, don’t be afraid to reach out to people who inspire you.

Say “hello” at an event, send an email asking for a little advice or interact with them on social media.

“For me, Twitter has been an incredible source of support for women in STEM,” Ford says. “I find you can approach potential mentors on Twitter that is much better received than a phone call or email.”

When Whiteford started out, she says, biting the bullet and reaching out to highly senior staff in a traditionally hierarchical institution played a powerful role in helping her get established in her career. “That really gave me a bit of a leg up at that time.”

Step 2: Aim for authenticity

A strong network is built on one crucial ingredient: authenticity.

Without a genuine connection and some vulnerability, it can be difficult to develop meaningful relationships where you can exchange ideas, share challenges or insecurities and receive insightful feedback.

“Just approaching someone because they are incredibly successful and sort of blankly asking them to be your mentor is probably not the best way around it,” says Ford. “It needs to happen a little more authentically.”

Keep an eye out for mentors with attributes, skills and abilities you admire and make an effort to really connect with them.

“Beat down that imposter syndrome, that shyness. Engage with them as people.”

Step 3: Break out of isolation

Having a “sisterhood” to bounce ideas off, discuss tough challenges and celebrate wins can be incredibly empowering, as Ford explains.

“In general, women are still in the minority across the STEM sector so you can feel really isolated. You can wonder if the challenges you are facing are something particular to you.

“But once you’ve got these networks, you realise that so many people are encountering the same thing and, therefore, you’ve got support and you’ve got great feedback but most importantly you’ve got solutions.”

And when those inevitable hard times hit, these are the people that will be there to back you and remind of you of the reason you’re doing all of this in the first place.

Ford found her “gang” after completing Superstars of STEM, a formal program run by Science and Technology Australia to spotlight female scientists and technologists.

“They gave us a lot of training and a lot of opportunities and mentoring but the best part by far was the other women. It was the informal connections and relationships.”

Meeting so many other women at similar stages of their career in such a collaborative and supportive space has changed Ford’s life.

“We set up a group on Slack on day one and we still have an ongoing conversation on there almost daily.”

Step 4: Connect with problem-solvers

A huge part of the success of Ford’s ‘peer mentoring’ group is that it’s solutions oriented.

When one person shares a problem, other members who’ve overcome similar challenges will share solutions and approaches that have worked for them.

“It’s not just having a space for complaining or being negative about things,” says Ford.

“If you need to, absolutely have a rant, get it off your chest but after that move on. Try to figure out what can be done and how we can band together to amplify each other’s voices.”

Ready to find your path?

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