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Developing Successful Career Relationships: Leveraging Mentoring, Coaching, and Sponsorship

1 November 2013 941 views No Comment
This column is written for statisticians with master’s degrees and highlights areas of employment that will benefit statisticians at the master’s level. Comments and suggestions should be sent to Megan Murphy, Amstat News managing editor, at megan@amstat.org.

Contributing Editor
Sarah Kalicin-wpSarah Kalicin is a senior statistician at Intel Corporation. Mentoring, coaching, and sponsorship skills have been crucial for her to develop to reach her career goals. Kalicin holds a master’s in applied statistics from the University of Michigan and a bachelor’s in mathematics and psychology from SUNY Oswego.

    Do you love your job? Do you feel you are as successful as you would like to be? Do you feel as if you are being held back because you are lacking some type of skill set or knowledge others have?

    We all have times in our career when we face barriers or enter unknown territory that leaves us insecure in ourselves, feeling unsure about how to proceed or helpless because we don’t see other options. It could be outgrowing a position and not knowing what to do next, not knowing how to handle different situations (e.g., dealing with difficult people or team dynamics, changes in business situations, taking on a new management or leadership position, etc.), or feeling overwhelmed with the demands of both work and home.

    This is very true for statisticians. We are usually expected to understand other disciplines, then help foster the understanding of statistics within others who prefer to run and hide when the “S” word is brought up, all while taking leadership roles across multidisciplinary teams with competing agendas. For many of us, it is a shock that being a successful statistician goes way beyond the technical skill set we learn in graduate school. It is easy to get lost in this mangled web of emotions and expectations we face in our jobs, careers, and life. As we progress through our careers, we learn we must step up and acquire other skills and knowledge on the job to be successful. What are these skills and knowledge? Do I need do go back to school? How do I get beyond these job/career obstacles, then demonstrate I have these skills? This is where mentoring, coaching, and sponsorship become essential career-leveraging tools.

    We all hear that we need a mentor, someone who will provide us with the direction and guidance we need—that this is the key to our success. Just how do I get this All Mighty One, the Holy Grail of my career, that every successful statistician has, you may ask? You don’t! It is a myth that you can find one person who can provide all the knowledge and guidance you need and facilitate the steps in your career. In fact, having only a mentor falls short of the relationships you need to succeed. The Harvard Business Review article, “Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women”, illustrates there is more to career growth than being mentored. The article provides evidence that men are more likely to be sponsored, while women are overly mentored, leading to the promotion imbalance.

    From my experience, mentoring, coaching, and sponsorship are all equally important, but they are completely different relationships that everyone needs to leverage. It all depends on your needs at any given time. As they say, what has brought you to this point will not get you to where you want to go. You need to understand what new skills, experiences, and perspectives you need to gain to move upward on the career ladder. Also, what has brought someone to where they are will be completely different from what you need to do. Everyone has their own unique strengths and opportunities. Basically, success is individual, along with its journey. So how do we leverage these relationships?


    Mentoring is for skill development, expanding your knowledge base, or gaining awareness. Mentors are people possessing skills or knowledge in other technical fields or business or who have organizational awareness that can help you build this knowledge base. Anyone can be a mentor to you (even younger individuals) if they have information that can help you do better in your job, provide awareness, or increase knowledge. Mentoring examples include the following:

      My background is solely statistics, with no computer engineering experience. Because I work at a semi-conductor company, understanding computer architecture helps me have more productive working discussions, perform better as a statistician, and engender mutual respect with my fellow engineering colleagues. I have sought hardware engineering mentors to gain this understanding.

      I was managing a team of engineers and having an issue with a key team member who was not contributing in a positive manner. I sought out a mentor (a previous manager to this team member) to gain some insight as to why this person was acting that way and how I could motivate this person to contribute. This enabled me to figure out how to get the member better involved in the team’s final decision.


    Coaching is about people development. A coach will guide you in changing your behavior or building necessary skills to achieve greater performance and efficiency. While awareness of these skills is essential, a coach provides practice and offers feedback to allow you to hone these skills over time. You may seek a coach to close performance gaps, gain better interpersonal and communication skills, or develop stronger management/leadership abilities. Coaching examples include the following:

      A few years ago, I was struggling to find myself in my career. I did not like the organization I was working in and the position did not challenge me. After trying to find other positions using the same strategies I had used in the past to no avail, I sought a career coach to guide me out of this desperate situation. With her help, I discovered what my strengths were, the types of positions I would fit best in, and how to “sell myself” in these areas. I altered my strategy in the way I saw myself, boosted my self-esteem, and provided a clearer focus for my career, which ultimately led me to my current position that I really love.

      There have been times in my career when I had to work with someone who was difficult and made my job trying, if not impossible. When I realized I did not have the skills to effectively handle the situation, I sought a coach to build my interpersonal communication skills. My coach provided constructive feedback on how I had handled the situation and offered new techniques for best communicating with difficult people. The relationship changed from confrontational to effective and productive.


    Sponsorship opens doors for you to experience new opportunities, which you would likely not otherwise be able to do on your own. A sponsor is your advocate when you wish to gain more exposure in a company or organization, provide stretch roles, obtain more experience, increase key contacts, or move up in an organization. Sponsors are key senior people who enable you to have the opportunities to demonstrate these skills. Sponsorship examples include the following:

      When I was looking for new opportunities within my company, I would conduct informational interviews with people who had interesting positions. Within these discussions, I asked if they would introduce me to more senior individuals who might be able to provide further contacts in the areas where my quantitative skills would make a useful contribution. These introductions led me to engage with very senior individuals and provided a better overall perspective of the company and business that I would not normally have received. They also served to open doors that would otherwise have remained closed to me.

      When I finally found a potential opportunity outside my organization, I needed to have a few senior managers aligned to enable the new role. I approached a senior manager who understood the challenges I was having within the organization. He discussed the merits of the role—and my position in it as a suitable candidate—with other key managers to develop and realize the role. He essentially proved to be my key advocate and proponent in circumstances in which I did not have the specific influence to make it happen myself.

    As can be seen from my experiences, mentoring, coaching, and sponsorship are different types of career relationships. When used effectively, they can propel you ahead in your career. Remember that as your career evolves, these relationships should also evolve to foster new necessary knowledge and skills. This means you need to be proactive in identifying what new knowledge and skills should be gained and seek the right relationships to help acquire them. In my new position, I am now re-evaluating my development needs and assembling my new relationships to allow me to take the relevant next steps in my career.

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