Select Page

Go beyond a mentor and find a champion to become CEO of ‘Me, Inc.’

That pack of wild dogs never had a chance.

A nature photographer captured an amazing scene in South Africa’s Madikwe Game Reserve, as a young elephant charged some wild dogs in order to protect the rest of the herd, including the younger elephants who weren’t quite ready to defend themselves.

While it may not be actual life and death, navigating the average business day can often feel just as intimidating—especially for those still new to their career paths. That’s when it’s nice to have your own elephant in your corner, leading the charge on your behalf.

This type of role goes way beyond a mentor. Don’t get me wrong: Mentors are valuable, and you should have those, too. But for a real game-changer, you need a champion. And finding yours is one of the key steps on your journey to becoming CEO of Me, Inc.

Champion vs. mentor

So, what’s the difference? A mentor can come from a variety of places, both internal and external: a past job, an old professor, a family friend, maybe even a formal mentorship program at your company. These people serve as advisors and help their mentees learn about the field and their role. Their job is to serve as a sounding board and to build your confidence and self-esteem by allowing you to leverage their experience.

You can even have what’s known as a “situational mentor,” who’s someone you call upon to help you through a particular transition in your career—maybe a new role at work, maybe managing people for the first time, etc. I believe you can have tons of mentors in your life—and you should!

A champion (sometimes called a “sponsor”), on the other hand, takes a more active approach to your development. This is someone who works in the same place as you, almost always someone above you who’s a decision-maker. This is someone with influence who’s at meetings and discussions you’re not but who’s nevertheless putting your name forward and supporting you as you’re coming up in the ranks. This is someone who’s always ready to “champion” you in things you wouldn’t even know existed.

Writer Jeanette Cajide elaborates in Entrepreneur:

“Think of a champion as a mentor but with a little more skin in the game. They are actively seeing that you get the good projects at work, that you receive the proper recognition for your job, and they provide you with timely feedback so that you are constantly improving … A champion is your voice when you are not around.”

Both mentors and champions are important, and you need both—but they’re definitely not the same.

Earning a champion

While mentors are a little easier to find, champions are earned. A champion is someone who’s seen the level of grit and determination you bring to the job; they’ve seen you pick yourself up after failing so you can try again. As Cajide remarks, “In every single case where I have had a champion, that person believed in me long before I ever believed in myself.”

But while a champion often finds you (instead of the other way around), you can still be working to do your part to earn that kind of dedicated advocate. In fact, it’s in your best interest to strategically target the best champion for you and work to build your case.

One bit of advice I give is to provide regular updates to your boss or supervisor about what you’re working on. These one-on-ones are a great opportunity for you to give them crucial information so they’re not unprepared in one of their own meetings. Talk about what’s happening on your projects (good or bad), any challenges you have, any “aha” moments you’ve encountered, etc.—and let them know you just want to help them be ready for any meetings or conversations that may pop up for them on the spur of the moment.

Many managers oversee a whole bunch of people – many of whom may be working remotely – so this is a great way for them to stay up-to-speed. In the process, you look really sharp and proactive, someone who’s on top of everything. By helping your supervisor look good, you end up looking really good yourself.

Champions for women

One sign in my office reads, “Empowered women empower women.” I’ve always tried to find ways to support and lift up other women, especially as we still battle inequities between the genders in the workplace. This is another reason why finding a champion is especially important for women.

As Holly Brittingham, senior vice president with Foote, Cone & Belding, FCB Global, explains in Glassdoor:

“When a well-connected senior leader commits to advocating for someone from an underrepresented group – even when this requires more investment in building relationship capital required for success – this individual-level action translates, at an organizational level, to disrupting the patterns that prevent career advancement for women and minorities.”

In other words, the ripple effect of this kind of relationship can be profound—not only to the organization but to each individual as well. And as we lift up other woman, we make incremental improvements for all women.

So, if you’re ready to finally be in control of your own destiny – to embrace your role of CEO of Me, Inc. – find ways to earn your own champion. Because we all deserve to have our own elephant watching our back.


(This is Part Two of a series on “Me, Inc.” Read the previous installment here!)

Denise Kruse is the CEO and owner of AdamsGabbert, a catalyst for growth, a spark for innovation, and a facilitator of progress. Founded in 1999 and based in Overland Park, Kan., AG focuses on staffing services, advisory services and technology services—all designed to make business better for their clients. Share your thoughts on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter!