Leave It Better: Q&A with John Sigmon on Mentorship and the #MentorHer Initiative

Earlier this month, LeanIn announced their #MentorHer initiative, a call-to-action for men to mentor women. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, a recent survey from LeanIn found that almost half of male managers are now uncomfortable participating in common work activities with women, including working alone and mentoring.

As a female CEO, my mentors — both men and women — have been a major influence in my life, have helped me have the courage when I needed it, gave me better perspective on a situation to better tackle it as a leader, introduced me to better opportunities, and provided a rich level of support throughout my life. When there is so much powerful research showing the need for mentors and advocates for women by men, it’s disheartening to hear that men are uncomfortable mentoring women. Two steps forward, one step back, it seems. But, it shouldn’t be this way.

I sat down with John Sigmon, a strategic business leader and the founder and President of Sigmon Leadership Solutions, to dive into the topic of mentorship. John is a visionary strategist in the field of employee engagement and human resources who’s held CHRO roles at AARP and The Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine, Inc. With nearly 20 years of HR and business innovation successes, John’s passion for people, mentoring, building great teams, and helping others grow professionally is clear and contagious.

Here’s what he had to say:

Autumn Manning: There’s a lot of talk about the importance of mentorship for women by men in order to empower women to move into better positions of leadership. What’s your take on this?

John Sigmon: I believe we need to think more expansively. The typical approach to finding a mentor, regardless of gender, is to observe and learn from individuals whose success you aspire to and then seek out those individuals. The key to finding success is to think strategically about your future and where you want to be. When I discuss careers with people and ask them what they want to accomplish, my experience has been that most people don’t think big or expansively, rather it is typically only things within their field of vision — the next promotion or job. That is perfectly fine, but as a mentor I want to know what you want 2–3 orders of magnitude beyond where you are right now. The other aspect is to approach the mentoring relationship from a design perspective: how are you going to work with a mentor to design a mutually beneficial relationship? This will mean asking a lot of questions. The larger your dream the more time it may take to find the right mentor.

The reality we face today is that the majority of corporate power rests with men. What this means is that from a simple mathematical perspective it seems unlikely that women are going to be able to find someone to guide them to their dream from a mentoring perspective without that person being a male. The other aspect to consider, and I know this flies in the face of current thinking about mentoring, is that you don’t have to limit yourself to one, single mentor. I don’t have a magic answer for the number. The point is, don’t limit yourself.

Manning: Do you see a difference between mentorship and sponsorship? If so, are you intentional about one over the other?

Sigmon: There is a clear distinction between a mentor and a sponsor. Many people get confused by the terms. A sponsor is someone who advocates for you based largely on their view of the value you bring to the organization. The sponsor promotes your ideas to leadership or may help you get assigned to a special project. Many times these advocacy efforts are invisible to the recipient. Mentorship on the other hand is generally a more reciprocal relationship that is not necessarily based on the value you add to the organization and clearly mentorship is visible to both parties.

I am intentional about both types of relationships and, quite frankly, I spend more time sponsoring individuals than I do mentoring. I never turn down an opportunity to engage in a mentoring discovery or conversation with someone. I don’t instigate the relationship, and even if people approach me, sometimes it is not the right fit. But I never decline the opportunity to engage in a conversation, sometimes it works, sometimes I am able to refer them to someone better suited.

Manning: How has your mentorship style changed over the years? Have you had to change your mentorship style due to changing culture climates?

Sigmon: My mentoring style has remained pretty constant over the years. My approach is to be responsive to requests, and to ask the protege/mentor to be responsible for the agenda. I let requesters know that I am there as a mentor to promote your agenda, not mine. As I have grown over the years in my career through successes, failures, and re-invention my toolkit has grown, which is quite nice because I love sharing my experiences and learnings with others.

We do live in an exciting time. I am certainly not conscious of any change in my approach based on the current cultural climate, but I do know my ability to be a good mentor has improved with my experiences. My approach has always been pretty straight forward, and that is to start from the mentee’s agenda.

Manning: What’s the importance of mentorship in professional growth for members of your team and professionals in general?

Sigmon: I am strongly committed to advancing connectedness in the workplace. There is often not a more intimate relationship in the workplace than the mentor relationship. A career is a long time, and getting longer. Your ability to grow, develop, and advance will, to a large extent, be governed by knowledge and your ability to be connected. A mentor can provide needed support and guidance. Science tells us the first person to live to be 150 has already been born, think about that for a minute. A career with the potential to stretch nearly a century. It would be a bit short-sighted to believe you will be able to navigate a long, rapidly evolving and dynamic career landscape without help from multiple sources.

Manning: What mentorship experiences did you have that were valuable? How have these made you passionate about mentorship?

Sigmon: Early in my HR career I was fortunate to work in HR Strategy alongside the head of our organization. He was a thoughtful, driven, and a personable leader. He taught me how to be an effective, but approachable executive. This lesson was a continuation of what my grandfather taught me many years ago, you don’t have to be hard edged or unapproachable to be effective and impactful. Business interests, profit and the like, and treating people with compassion and humanity are not mutually exclusive!

Manning: Do you mentor women differently than men? If so, why? How do you coach male leaders to mentor female team members and vice versa?

Sigmon: This is a great question. I am not sure that I do. I start from where my mentee is, what is important to them. While there are clearly differences in some of the challenges women face in the workplace, I have found that when people are seeking my guidance and advice I always work from their agenda. So if their agenda is related to their gender then the coaching will be based on that issue.

Manning: Other than mentorship, what other avenues would you recommend women pursue that want to be business leaders?

Sigmon: I recommend a couple of things. First, be very clear with yourself about what’s important to you. Whenever I start to work with others, I ask them to take some time and focus on getting clear on their values. This can be a bit scary, but being clear on what is important to you, will guide you through your career in ways you can’t imagine in the moment. For example, if autonomy is important to me, then that will color the interview questions I ask, the assignments I want to dive into, and how I get my work done.

Second, finance. Understanding how your organization makes money and allocates resources can accelerate your career in a big way. You can partner with colleagues in finance, read through annual reports, 990’s as applicable, your public filings, and listen in on earning calls if possible. You don’t have to become a CPA, but understanding the flow of money through your organization is critical.

Leave it Better with Autumn Manning is a Q&A conversation series with YouEarnedIt’s CEO to discuss hot topics around leadership, diversity, culture, and women in tech as part of our ongoing effort to build strong and inclusive business cultures.

Autumn Manning is co-founder and CEO of YouEarnedIt, an HR SaaS company that improves bottom-line performance metrics by enhancing the employee experience. With a background in human capital management and expertise in enhancing corporate culture, she carries out the company’s vision to improve the lives of employees everywhere, one company at a time.
Profiled in The New York Times and HuffPost, Autumn’s thoughts on culture and leadership have been featured in Inc., Business Insider, and Entrepreneur. Under her leadership, YouEarnedIt created the world’s most robust employee experience platform and was named to Entrepreneur Magazine’s list of Best Company Cultures in 2017.

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