During the Insurance Industry Charitable Foundation’s (IICF) Women in Insurance Global Conference in New York, June 12-14, INN sat down with four leaders at Farmers Insurance to discuss its Women’s Leadership Network. To read about this, click here. At the event the four leaders also touched on mentorship and sponsorship.
Deborah Aldredge, Chief Administrative Officer
Doris Dunn, Director, Community Relations
Dale Marlin, Chair, Fire Ins. Exchange Board of Governors
Laura Rock, Head of HR Strategy & Workforce Planning
Q: The idea of sponsorship may still be new to some people. What’s the difference between sponsorship and mentorship?
Aldredge: I had an opportunity to go to Fortune’s [The Most Powerful Women] conference last year. There was a panel discussion about having a mentor or a sponsor, what’s the difference, and one of the panelists said it very crisply and succinctly: If it’s a conversation that takes place about you, and you're in the room, that's mentoring. If it’s a conversation that takes place about you and you're not in the room, it’s sponsorship.
Q: How does someone seek out a mentor?
Aldredge: Be very thoughtful about whom you seek out to be your mentor and know that those might change over time. In your 20s, you may be pursuing a career, life may not be complicated by a husband, a spouse, children, etc. Zoom ahead, now with all those other things in your life, you may want to talk to someone who can help you deal with some of those. A lot of the success from mentorship is chemistry. We (Farmers Women’s Leadership Network) have tried to sort of formalize mentorship, but it doesn’t work well that way. It really does happen naturally, you’ve got to create the environment where these things can perk, but it really does have to come together where the people really can seek each other out and find value.
Dunn: Trying to formalize it starts to feel a little bit forced. What works is those natural conversations where at the end of the conversation you realize that was just a natural conversation; that really helped me; it guided me. It’s important to try to find a few mentors that you call if you're having that bad day and say “hey, what do you think I should do?” It’s those informal conversations that you can have on a regular basis with lots of women that really make a difference in a career.
Q: What about a sponsor; can someone actually seek out a sponsor?
Marlin: Early on, you may not know who your sponsor is. Somebody may be putting you up for a job and you're wondering how that happened. Being able to do a number of jobs and get in front of a lot of different executives improves your chances [of finding a sponsor].
Aldredge: Dale is right; [in my own experience] I didn’t even know this conversation was taking place, I had no idea. In my past, I had the opportunity to work for terrific men and terrific women who saw great potential and were willing to stick their neck out and say “you know I think she would be great in that job.” And all of the sudden I’m thinking about moving my family, 7 ½ months pregnant, taking this really big job, and I’ve gone from managing three people to now managing 50 people and a huge budget and taking on a whole big part of the business. Having that opportunity to prove yourself [is one thing, but you have to take advantage of the opportunity]. You have to tell somebody you want it. You have to be very clear on what you want — “I see myself running that division, I see myself being a CEO, I see myself running that board.” That helps to clarify it for [a potential sponsor]. It plants a seed and people who are [considering] sponsoring you are looking for evidence to support the notion.
Marlin: When I was selected to be nominated for the Farmers board, the man who became CEO was the senior VP that I had worked with [in the past]. We had worked through some very difficult issues and grew to really trust and respect one another. Then when he knew his board was looking for members, he suggested my name. So there was a sponsor that wasn't even in my company, because at the time I was working for IBM. You just don't know but you need to be able to, as Deb says, take on that responsibility and the tough things and be willing to say I’ll do it and then do it.
Q: Is sponsorship more beneficial than mentorship or vice versa or are they equally beneficial?
Rock: For me the benefit of sponsorship has been really strong women and a men, but a lot of really strong women, Deb being one of them, pushing me beyond my comfort zone. Having that support and having somebody see that in me has been very beneficial for my career.
Marlin: Men have been mentored for a long time, so it’s just natural for them. When I was [in the early stages of my career in the ‘70s], we had a group of us who knew each other and we would say “I have to go for a drink after work today, I have to tell you this thing.” It was really important to have that support and I don't know whether it’s mentoring or just sort of [a work relationship].
Q: What advice do you have for a woman who wants to be a sponsor?
Aldredge: You have to think [hard] about it personally because you're putting skin in the game. You have to have a point of view and feel that strongly about it. You have to have had some opportunity to work with that person, get to know that person and trust that person. Women have to figure out how we expand the opportunities to do that. [Women have to get past the idea of] seeing that as opportunistic. When women look at mentoring, it feels natural, it’s nurturing in many ways. On the other hand, when they view sponsorship in its purest form, they see it as opportunistic. I think that's where they're at probably a distinct disadvantage from men. So we’re trying to educate the women on how we go about doing that, how to set up an environment and a set of circumstances that allow that to happen.
Q: How can the mentor learn from the mentee?
Aldredge: In a mentor/mentee relationship, the older person, in terms of experience, and also in age, often times is the one who has been training the younger person. But now what I've seen is that with technology in particular, there's a real benefit to having a mentor who can keep you current. And then as you become more senior in the organization, you're connected. You want to make sure you're not losing sight of what's important. I find now that I have value in mentees who are much younger, but they're really good with social media, they're really wired technologically. They also are in the trenches with the customers and employees and they can say ‘here's what people think, and here's what they're feeling.’ What's fun about mentoring is [the mentor/mentee roles] can flip.
To read part I of this series, click here.
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