In this guest essay, Scott DeGeest outlines a reframing of mentorship that centers “advisory councils,” and thus, multiple forms of career advocacy.
Though many people ascribe value to mentorship, surprisingly few get that support. A 2019 survey of 3,000 professionals found that while 76% of respondents think having a mentor would be valuable, only 37% had one. Further, many people imagine that their immediate supervisor would be their mentor; however, such overlap is relatively rare and sometimes creates conflicts of interest that can limit the effectiveness of such mentorship.
Top-down mentorship from someone more advanced in their career provides only one form of career advocacy. Other forms – including sponsorship, coaching, and peer mentorship – are also critical. Instead of imagining mentorship as coming from a single, top-down source, I recommend that people think about developing their own “advisory council,” or a loosely connected group of people providing you with multiple forms of career advocacy.
One hallmark of the Data Science for All program is its commitment to empowering fellows via career advocacy, including mentorship. In this month’s article, I will define and describe several common forms of career advocacy – all of which sometimes get mislabeled as mentorship. Next, I will reflect on some of my own experiences with career advocacy. Finally, I will discuss how you can create your advisory council.
Regarding career advocacy, or the support people get in advancing their careers – I tend to think about three distinct categories: sponsorship, coaching, and mentorship.
Sponsorship is a form of advocacy where an individual will speak up for you when you are not in the proverbial room. Sponsors are typically someone more senior than you in an organization. A sponsor will encourage others to consider you for opportunities. This kind of sponsorship can come from a direct supervisor and other decision-makers in an organization. A crucial part of sponsorship is credibility and mutual support. For sponsorship to be effective, the person advocating for you must have credibility and influence.
Further, if you find out that you have received some form of sponsorship, excelling in the opportunity given can be a boon. Doing so helps both you and your sponsor by increasing your mutual credibility. Note that sponsorship is often transactional. A sponsor generally advocates for you in exchange for performing well in that opportunity. The sponsorship time frame is typically fairly short and focused on a specific opportunity, though someone can sponsor you repeatedly over a given timeframe. Finally, sponsorship generally does not involve you paying someone to be your sponsor. Any sponsorship offer in exchange for monetary compensation should be reviewed with caution.
Coaching is a form of career advocacy where an individual typically creates a contract with you for specific and actionable career advice and advancement. Sometimes coaching is focused on building soft skills like networking, creating and reviewing career documents like resumes and cover letters, or practicing communicating with non-technical stakeholders. Other times, it’s focused on targeting a specific job title or developing technical skills. A key part of coaching is its specificity: a coaching relationship often focuses on achieving a specific goal within a defined time frame. Again, coaching is transactional. A coach generally agrees to work with you because you have contracted them to help you achieve a career goal. If you want coaching, it will be charged for as a service or be provided as part of a fellowship or other training program.
Mentorship is a broader, less-defined form of career advocacy where an individual provides you with perspective, advice, or information about your career and professional development. Sometimes this information is quite targeted: it can be information about a specific role in a specific job or asking for an introduction to a decision-maker in an organization where you want to work. Other times, this advice can be focused on a specific question or problem the mentee has in their current role. Still, other times, this advice is more general: it can include input about current industry trends, thought leadership, or perspectives on how to succeed in a given field. Regardless of the topic, the timeframe of mentorship can be as short as a few weeks or as long as several years. Though mentorship is the least transactional of these forms of career advocacy, it tends to be mutually beneficial. Many people who provide mentorship see it as a valuable way to give back to their professional community, and mentees typically get valuable access to advice, perspectives, and information This two-way approach to mentorship facilitates the health and longevity of a mentoring relationship. Finally, mentors generally provide this resource for free or at no cost. Some fee-charging services describe themselves as mentorship; however, in my framework, such input is better described as coaching.
Another distinction is top-down mentorship versus peer mentorship. Often, people construe mentorship as being a strictly top-down process where the relative age, work experience, and career advancement of a mentor is much greater than that of the mentee. Individuals increasingly opt for peer mentorship, where these gaps are small.
During my time in DS4A, I received each form of career advocacy. Below, I discuss each. I also relay some of my experiences working with Partick Waldo, a colleague who is also part of DS4A’s mentorship program. Our experiences working together have involved each of us taking on different career advocacy roles for each other.
Sponsorship has been critical to my success in teaching and contributing to Correlation One and Data Science for All. People like Rob Rush, Eric Dusseau, and Kelly Hopkins not only reached out to me about specific opportunities but also advocated for me in these roles to ensure I had the resources I needed to deliver high-quality work. I highlight how these individuals not only sponsored me but also made that process more transparent.
Another specific example of sponsorship I want to highlight is how Patrick Waldo sponsored me in the early part of my consulting career. He did excellent work counseling me on addressing stakeholders’ needs, helping me navigate the client organization’s bureaucracy, and advocating for me in discussions with leaders. His sponsorship was critical to my success in delivering high-quality data products the client continues to use.
Correlation One has provided me with coaching that was instrumental to my success. Two specific examples that come to mind are the coaching I received in Data Science for All/Empowerment from Rachel Bitarelli during Cohort 2 and Noah Morton during Cohort 3. Rachel both helped me prep my career documents and also patiently talked me through a challenging, multi-round interview process. Noah gave me specific support around how to frame my accomplishments in the full-time data scientist role I started shortly after Cohort 2. Note that while I did not directly pay for coaching from Rachel or Noah, they were paid to be professional coaches and delivered high-quality coaching services as part of their work at Correlation One.
Correlation One has provided me with excellent top-down and peer mentorship. As part of my fellowship in Cohort 2, I was assigned to Andrew Seitz as a mentor. His advice on building a data project aligned with stakeholders’ needs was critical. Since the end of the fellowship, I have continued to meet with him several times and get his perspective on industry trends. We also talk about his career experiences as a director of data science at Snowflake.
Finally, Correlation One also gave me excellent opportunities to develop my network of peer mentors. A big part of deepening my experience in the cohorts where I have been a fellow and a TA has been building peer mentoring relationships with Duy Nguyen, Teneika Askew, Revell Bell, Robert Rush, Kelly Hopkins, and others. Having a support network of peers to whom I can turn for input on questions both specific (e.g., “One of my customers asked for X in our data product. How can I address this concern?”) and general (“I’ve heard a little about how more people are using Sankey diagrams as part of data visualizations. What do you think of this trend?”) has been invaluable.
Finally, the Data Science for All/Empowerment program also provided my colleague Partick Waldo with opportunities to mentor fellows in Cohorts 3 and 4 of the program. These days he and I also offer peer mentorship to each other, and we talk regularly about issues related to developing data products that meet the needs of our stakeholders and customers.
I have one recommendation and takeaway I hope my readers draw from this essay: think about what kinds of career advocacy you want – sponsorship, coaching, and mentoring – and make a plan to connect with people who can provide it. Those individuals will form a loose collective that is your “personal advisory council.” Though the members of your council will not regularly talk or meet, thinking about them as a resource to whom you can turn for advice can be a powerful antidote to anxieties about career progression.
There are many ways to start building the connections that will form your council. One of the best ways to get started is to identify peer mentors with whom you want to connect. Organizations like Mentor Mesh, Data in Motion, and the Mentor Me Collective create these opportunities for data professionals. Further, organizations with specific mentorship goals like She Loves Data, Women in Big Data, and Out in Tech can help you find specialized mentorship.
Too often, people think of mentorship as stemming from a single, top-down relationship. In the evolving world of data professionals, we need multiple forms of career advocacy – sponsorship, coaching, and mentoring – from a diverse group of people. Developing connections that will grow into an advisory council of people that provides different kinds of career advocacy can be critical to achieving your career goals.
I want to acknowledge Teneika Askew, Revell Bell, Kelly Hopkins, and Robert Rush for our ongoing conversations about these topics that were critical to drafting this essay. Further, I want to acknowledge and thank Robert Rush for his written contributions to an earlier draft version of this essay.
Links to Communities where one can find mentors and build connections