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Making the connection: mentors, sponsors, and a network you can count on.

WHILE WORKING AT WARNER-Lambert Co. (now Pfizer Inc.) from 1995 to 2002, Mary Winston attracted the attention of then-CFO Ernie Larini. As assistant treasurer in charge of setting strategy and overseeing execution of all financing and financial risk globally, Winston, who is today Scholastic Inc.'s executive vice president and CFO, interfaced with Larini on a regular basis and worked with him on various projects. She had no idea how impressed he was by her performance--at least not until six to nine months into the job.

"Because of my role, I was a part of his finance organization. So we had quite a bit of natural direct interaction. There wasn't a formal moment where he said, 'Hey, I'm going to be your sponsor,'" notes Winston. "I just began noticing that he was very supportive of me, assigning me to more visible projects, and frequently spoke highly of me in succession and planning discussions with senior management and the board."

Larini says he was impressed with Winston before she even joined the Warner-Lambert camp. In fact, when the company was scouting talent to fill the position, Larini held the job open for several months until Winston was ready to come onboard. "We were looking to improve the diversity within the company and we had candidates who could do the job, but we continued to hold out for Mary because we were looking for quality, not just to get numbers," Larini explains. "She was labeled as a high-potential individual who was a self-starter and could get the job done."

In less than a year, Winston was promoted to vice president and assistant treasurer international. With the new title, she became--at 34-years-old--the youngest person ever to be promoted to that position and the first African American female in the company's history to assume the role. She credits her own willingness to go the extra mile and Larini for his influence in helping to elevate her so quickly.

With each promotion, Winston focused intently on broadening her financial, international, and executive skills. Her next goal was to sit in the treasurer's seat. But her sponsor had a bigger title in mind for the fast-track executive. His recommendation: "Why limit yourself to that particular position? Why not become the CFO?"

"Since we had a number of different businesses and we were a global company, we wanted individuals who would be able to move into broader financial roles. I saw in Mary something that she didn't see in herself and that was the ability to go beyond the treasurer's role," says Larini.

Winston seriously considered his counsel and in 1998, when the CFO of Warner-Lambert Canada transitioned out to accept a position elsewhere, Winston took on the job. Larini also recommended that she participate in a number of projects that were outside of her normal responsibilities. Winston again followed his advice. She assumed leadership roles on both the company's Finance Talent Planning Committee and Corporate Talent Planning Committee, where her responsibilities included succession planning. When merger talks began in 2000, Larini and others recommended that Winston join a merger integration team. As a part of the group, she helped define the strategy that integrated Warner-Lambert and Pfizer in what became a $30 billion merger.

Today, the 45-year-old mother of two oversees all aspects of finance and accounting for Scholastic Inc., a $2 billion publicly traded leader in children's book publishing, distribution, media, and education. "I wasn't consciously looking for someone to be my sponsor, but having one has clearly been an enabler for me and has been beneficial to my career progression," offers Winston. "I was able to learn things from Ernie that helped me succeed at Warner-Lambert, as well as at my job here at Scholastic." Although Larini has retired, Winston continues to keep in contact with her former sponsor and looks for talent within her own department, division, and throughout the company to see whom she can sponsor.

Like Winston, many career professionals are looking for ways to successfully navigate the tough and competitive terrain of corporate America, and the successful ones know that it's almost impossible without mentors and sponsors. In an environment where promotions aren't predicated on performance alone and plum assignments don't always go to the next professional in line, mentors and sponsors are key components of the career strategy.

Women, and women of color in particular, are finding that having mentors and sponsors means the difference between getting ahead and hitting a cement ceiling. According to the 2002 Catalyst study Women of Color in Corporate Management: Three Years Later, 58% of the 368 female managers surveyed reported having a mentor--a marked increase from the 38% recorded in 1998. Among African American women, 62% had mentors. The study also revealed that seven out of 10 women of color who had a mentor in 1998 have since had a promotion, and the more mentors a woman has the faster she moves up the corporate ranks. Also, the greater number of mentors she has, the greater number of promotions she receives.

"For multicultural women, you don't advance in organizations without sponsorship. It just doesn't happen," says Vanessa Weaver-Coleman Ph.D., CEO of Alignment Strategies, a Washington, D.C.-based management consulting firm. "So when you want to move into executive level positions, you've got to have a sponsor--and not just one. The decision about who advances is made by more than one person, so if you have more than one sponsor, it really increases the chances that you will get the nod."

But what is a mentor? What kind of help can he or she provide? And how does one find and develop a relationship that prove beneficial to a budding career (for tips on how to find a mentor or sponsor, visit In addition to a mentor some professionals gain access to a sponsor, a career-enhancing counterpart to mentors. But are sponsors better than mentors? And should you have one or the other or both?


A mentor is an experienced individual inside or outside of an organization who imparts his or her knowledge, expertise, and professional experiences to another person, known as the mentee. Acting as a career counselor or coach, a mentor provides specific training to a mentee and/or advice and direction on career development and leadership responsibilities. Mentors can also provide emotional support by serving as a sounding board when you need to talk about the daily pressures of your work environment.

"Typically [mentors] have a wider viewpoint than the person they are mentoring, so they can see opportunities before you might get wind of them," says Donna Fowler, national president of the Professional Coaches and Mentors Association. "They have influence with people who you may need in order to get those opportunities or those projects. And they can work through the organization and teach you how to do it," she says.

Mentoring relationships can be formal or informal. In the 1998 Korn/Ferry International study, Diversity in the Executive Suite: Successful Career Paths and Strategies, 71% of the executives surveyed had informal mentors and 22% had formal mentors. Mentor relationships often stem from friendships and last for an entire career and beyond. Mentors are typically senior to their mentees, but some mentoring relationships are peer-to-peer. About half the women surveyed in Catalyst's Three Years Later study have a mentor several job levels above their own, and 10% have a mentor who is her peer.

A sponsor, on the other hand, acts as an advocate for a professional who is looking to move to higher-ranking positions. Some sponsors provide coaching, though they are not coaches. Others, orient new professionals to a particular position by showing them the ropes. They speak on behalf of employees and make recommendations to their own network of influential colleagues to help candidates advance through a firm.

"A sponsor is a high-level individual in the organization who has taken a personal interest in shepherding another individual's career, but sometimes you don't even know who your sponsor is," says Weaver-Coleman. "A sponsor is somebody who is in meetings that you would never be in, someone who has a social network in the organization that you probably don't have access to, and someone who influences other people to think about you and select you for a particular position or high visibility project you might not get otherwise."


Alfreda Bradley-Coar, 42, can appreciate the value of such a corporate advocate. Last July, she stood before 1,500 attendees at the annual symposium of General Electric's African American Forum (AAF), an affinity organization that offers mentoring programs, seminars, and informal career discussions, to introduce the company's chairman, Jeffrey Immelt. "In an introduction, most people stick to the script of name, rank academic and business achievements," says Bradley-Coar of her performance. "In my introduction, I focused on the concept of risk-taking, which Immelt had been championing at the time. Then I took a risk of my own by giving the chairman a somewhat tongue-in-cheek performance evaluation relative to the evaluation techniques that GE uses for every employee." The introduction was a resounding success and earned accolades from her colleagues and Immelt himself. It also put her on the chairman's radar.

At the time she was general counsel for one of the GE equipment services businesses and had been working for the company for 11 years. The symposium served to provide opportunities for Bradley-Coat to gain greater visibility in the organization and broaden her network of contacts.

"It was great exposure for me," she says, owing the opportunity to her mentor, Paula Madison, president and general manager of KNBC in Los Angeles, a GE subsidiary. As part of the committee to choose the introductory speaker, Madison felt her mentee was the perfect choice. "Alfreda is an extremely Intelligent and very capable young woman whose career is definitely on an upward swing, and her delivery of the introduction is proof of that," offers Madison. "In fact, it was one of the best introductions of him that I've ever heard. For her to be able to pull out aspects of his career, highlight and put them together in a way that was informative and witty, that's an outstanding skill."

Madison, 54, first began mentoring the rising attorney in 2003, while both were participants in AAF. Madison says every year through the program, senior executives mentor "high-potential managers and employees who are on their way to the next level." Bradley-Coar was clearly on the fast track. Through the program, Madison was assigned to be the young exec's mentor.

"Alfreda is an attorney so she has skill sets that I couldn't begin to have," says Madison, who is also regional manager of NBC Telemundo, Los Angeles regional stations KVEA and KWHY, and NBC Universal's executive vice president for diversity. "But part of my thrill in being assigned to mentor her is that, although I'm in a completely different business, I felt as though with my 17 years of experience inside NBC and GEI could give her some insight into different career choices and businesses."

Bradley-Coar says her mentor has always been just a phone call away. Although GE's mentoring program suggested that mentors change mentees every two years, the two continue their mentoring relationship outside of the formal program, calling each other whenever advice or an understanding ear is needed.

"Seeing people rise to the level of president and CEO gives me great satisfaction," Madison says. "Plus knowing that there are African Americans in the business world who are shining examples of what can happen if only we are given a chance--that's the joy."
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Author:Harris, Wendy
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Feb 1, 2007
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