An idiom and a corporate mentor are just a distinction away
When one of my Anglo friends uses an American idiom such as, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” she asks me if I’m familiar with its meaning. If I say no, she usually says, “Wow, I can’t believe you’ve never heard it. It’s a very common saying in English,” and she goes on to explain what it means. I usually reply: “How common can it be if I’ve never heard it and I’ve been in this country for twenty five years!” Sometimes, I then share the Spanish equivalent, which in this case would be: “La mona aunque se vista de seda, mona queda.”
Inevitably, a few days later I start hearing and reading that expression everywhere. How could this be? Did it just become popular? No. What happened is that before my friend made the distinction for me, that phrase was just a string of words that I didn’t register as a unit.
This is important because the lack of distinctions in any area renders us unable to act in that area. In my example, when I don’t understand a particular saying, I miss a reference that almost everyone else gets. In more important situations, not understanding a specific distinction can keep you from advancing in your career.
Distinctions are not just definitions of words but tools that enable you to see things and to act on them in ways you couldn’t before you understood the distinction. One important distinction that Latinos who may be the first in their families to work in corporate America, frequently lack is the difference between a corporate mentor, a career sponsor, an advocate, an advisor, and a coach. As a result, they may fail to incorporate these critical people into their networks (or think that a corporate mentor is all they need;) and, consequently, they tend to remain stuck at lower levels in their careers, something they could overcome with the right support.
Definitions of corporate mentor, career sponsor, advocate and advisor
Recently, a mid career Latina I was coaching said to me, “Until two months ago, I never knew there was a difference between a corporate mentor and a career sponsor.” Naturally, she didn’t have both corporate mentors and sponsors because, not understanding the distinction, she didn’t realize the need for them.
Therein lies the importance of making these distinctions explicit to diverse employees:
- A corporate mentor is someone you admire and respect in their area of expertise, who can guide you through the unwritten rules of the organization, provide feedback on your appearance and behavior, and help you figure out your goals.
- A career sponsor is usually a very high-ranking executive, often someone within your organization who values your potential and goes to bat for you. The career sponsor is the person who opens up great opportunities and risks his/her reputation in the process.
- A career advocate is anyone who sings your praises. They are your cheerleaders and can be at any level of the organization.
- A career advisor is someone you trust outside of your company and even your industry that provides feedback, guidance and objectivity you may not find within your organization.
- A career coach is someone you (or your company) pay to work with you in specific areas where you need help or that you wish to develop such as presentation skills, communication, or leadership styles.
Each of these individuals has a clear role to play in everyone’s career. But for Latinos and individuals from a non-Anglo heritage, their importance is heightened given their more recent entry into corporate America and the challenges they still face breaking into the senior ranks. By not being aware of the specific role of each one of these people Latinos might fail to diversify their networks or might remain confident that all they need is a corporate mentor which studies show is really not enough to help you move beyond middle management.
Distinctions like these are needed in many areas of career management: from understanding the unwritten rules of an organization to being aware of how your communication style impacts your leadership opportunities to recognizing how your cultural background influences your attitudes and behavior.
Making explicit what people familiar with corporate culture know implicitly will help fast track many more Latinos in corporate America.