No matter where you sit in your career — at the very beginning or swiftly rising through the ranks — everyone can use someone to bounce ideas off and gain useful insight. That’s where having a mentor serves as a major asset. Mentorship has proven beneficial in business, which is why Salesforce’s Chief Philanthropy Officer Ebony Beckwith invited Neeracha Taychakhoonavudh, Salesforce’s EVP, global customer success & strategy, to join her for the third episode of web series #BossTalks.
The two executives discuss the differences between mentorship (working with a trusted advisor or peer who offers advice, help with key work or life moments, and could turn into an ongoing relationship) and sponsorship (taking mentorship up a level with someone even more experienced and who can advocate on your behalf) and a number of subjects, including:
- Setting up your personal board of directors
- Finding and maintaining a mentor relationship
- Zooming out provides greater perspective
- Think beyond the next promotion
- Visibility sends encouraging messages
- Kindness as a personal value
- Peers as mentors
Setting up your personal board of directors
Taychakhoonavudh says we all need mentors. These are people who help guide our careers. They can be your first boss; a more seasoned colleague who can help show you the ropes; someone outside your company you’ve met at a conference. You can have one person or a few trusted advisors. “Whether you call someone a mentor or whether you call them your personal board of directors,” she says,” [This is] a trusted circle where you can really get advice, people who know you and people who can be very neutral and objective about maybe a decision that you have to make.” Taychakhoonavudh says having a sponsor is not an absolute need, but having a mentor is “crucial.”
Finding and maintaining a mentor relationship
Finding a mentor usually starts by having some sort of a relationship with the person you want to mentor you. Reaching out to someone you respect but don’t really know is probably not a great idea. Sometimes the relationship can happen organically and grow through casual conversations. Taychakhoonavudh points out that a mentor relationship can and should be a two-way street. The mentee can also bring knowledge and insight to the relationship. “Be prepared and think about the mentor and what’s in it for them?” she says. “What can you share that would be extra learning for them?”
Everyone has a busy schedule and some people you may want to approach as a mentor have very packed schedules. Keep this in mind as you think about the frequency of your talks or meetings. While you may consider monthly check-ins a reasonable request, the mentor may find that burdensome. She also points out you should share your accomplishments with your mentor — and not just the professional ones. Sometimes it’s just about sharing what’s going on in each other’s personal lives. Taychakhoonavudh says she has continued to speak quarterly with former team members who she no longer works with simply because she cares about them and their successes.
“If you had an ad-hoc moment where you’re like, ‘Give me some advice on this particular scenario,’ you should always go back afterwards and say how it turned out,” she adds. “Always close that loop with the mentor. If you work at it, everything takes a little bit of work, it can be years and years of just a fruitful relationship.”
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Zooming out provides better perspective
We all have moments where we focus on the next step in our career, but that could prove shortsighted. Sometimes you may consider moving on from your current situation because some frustrations exist, where Taychakhoonavudh advises zooming out to look at the whole picture.
“There may be frustration, but think about the context,” she says. “This involves empathy as well. Think about the entire context, the other people involved in it who may be frustrating you, but think about what they’re about and then think bigger. Zooming out, meaning taking a more holistic view of whatever challenge you’re facing, really helps give perspective and helps, hopefully, you think a little bit differently about what you’re dealing with.”
Think beyond the next promotion
A good mentor can help you think beyond your next promotion and help you understand there’s more to your career path than just climbing the ladder. First, even if you are the superstar you think you are, other factors come to play and a promotion is, oftentimes, out of your control. Instead, Taychakhoonavudh suggests evaluating how you can grow at every stage of your career. “Think about what you’re learning. Think about taking on new projects that help expand your knowledge areas, your sphere of control,” she said. “Instead of thinking about a promotion as the goal, think bigger. Think, where do I want to be in a few years and how do I get there? Regardless of whether my title is manager or director, how do I get where I want to go?”
Visibility sends encouraging messages
Beckwith talked about the burden of often being the only woman of color at the table. She asked Taychakhoonavudh what that means for her and how that impacts her life and also her mentees. “I think of myself as just being there and being visible in leadership so others coming behind can see that it’s possible,” Taychakhoonavudh said. “As they say, ‘If you can see it, you can be it.’ That’s what I think about a lot, perhaps not always enjoying being the only, but understanding there is a responsibility for how we help all the people coming behind us.”
Kindness as a personal value
Before you get frustrated or jump to conclusions when someone responds in a certain way — or not at all — Taychakhoonavudh suggests approaching things from a place of empathy and kindness. Work is not life, but life can seep into our work. We never know what sort of day someone has had and that can impact an outcome. “One of my personal values is kindness and thinking about where someone is,” Taychakhoonavudh said. “If you think about the legacy you want to leave in the world, the idea of making a positive impact on people one at a time is immense.”
Peers as mentors
A mentor does not have to be a manager or an executive. Sometimes, we can lean on our peers and networks to help steer us through issues large and small. Beckwith asked Taychakhoonavudh about the rise of hate-fueled attacks at the Asian American Pacific Islander community and who she turns to for support and guidance and, in turn, how she offers her help. “We at Salesforce run equality circles so our various team members can learn from each other, share and then listen to everyone’s experiences,” she said. “Being a part of those, not only have I offered support, it’s actually been immensely supportive for me as I process through this.”
Taychakhoonavudh also used these experiences for self reflection and says every conversation or interaction can be educational. “I learn something from every single conversation I have and I think the more conversations we have, the better the understanding and the more learning is imparted,” she said.
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Hello everyone and welcome to a new episode of Boss Talks. This is a series featuring candid career conversations with people I admire and tries to keep it real. Today we’re talking about mentorship and sponsorship, how they’re alike and how they’re different and the value each one can bring. Now, if you follow me on LinkedIn, you know that this is an area I am super passionate about and that’s because I’ve experienced firsthand the benefits of that for my own career. And I’ve been so grateful for all the people who have so generously given me their time over the years because it has made all the difference for me, but I also know that not everyone has someone in their corner cheering them on and telling them to go for it and really that’s what I try to be for other people. That’s a huge reason I started Boss Notes.
We really want you to succeed because it does take a village and that’s why I’m not even going to try to tackle this topic alone. I’ve invited a colleague from Salesforce who I truly admire, Executive Vice-president and Chief Success officer, Neeracha Taychakhoonavudh. I’m so excited for you all to hear what she has to say. Neeracha, welcome to Boss Talks. Thank you so much for joining us.
Ebony, I’m so excited to be here. Thanks for having me.
I know today’s topic is of particular interest to you. I’ve heard you talk about it a few times at Salesforce and walked away thinking, “Wow, she really gets it and she needs to share this with our Boss Talks community.” Let’s dive right on in. So my first question for you, I really want to make sure that the audience has a chance to get to know you a little bit better. You have a huge job at Salesforce. It just got even bigger. Tell everyone about your background and how you got to where you are.
Well, I don’t have a techie background, I have, as they would call it, a humanities undergrad degree in economics and international relations. I ended up in tech somewhat accidentally, but I loved the fast pace, the innovation. I love the fact that it became a foundation. Technology is a foundation of our entire world. And so, I stayed.
I love the accidental part. I definitely call myself an accidental philanthropist, really just proving that where you start is not always where you finish and things kind of ebb and flow. So as you know, today’s topic is all about mentorship and sponsorship. And before we go any further, I want to make sure we’re all on the same page with definition. So tell us how you define both of these roles.
Well, mentorship for me is the idea of a trusted advisor. It could be a peer. It could be a trusted peer who can give you feedback, who you can get advice from, especially in key moments, could be ongoing, but could be just key moments of advice to someone trusted who knows you. Sponsorship is like mentorship plus. It is usually someone with a little bit more experience, more seniority, who can actually not just support and advise, but advocate. That’s kind of the delta between the two in my mind.
I really liked that, mentorship plus. I’m going to have to start using that. Do you think one is more critical to a person’s success? Do we need both a mentor and a sponsor?
I think we all need mentors, whether you call someone a mentor or whether you call them your personal board of directors, a trusted circle where you can really get advice, some people who know you and people can be very neutral and objective about maybe a decision that you have to make. Now, sponsors I think are… I don’t know if they’re an absolute need to have, but they’re an immensely nice to have. It’s hard to tell the moments at which you will need a sponsor, but that is somewhat of an organic relationship. You have to think and plan, but if it doesn’t happen, I don’t think it’s a big deal. I think mentorship is crucial though.
I absolutely agree and I like how you framed them both. How have these roles shown up for you in your life and career?
I’ve been lucky to have both mentors and sponsors. I think mentors for me… In fact, when I went to business school, I was assigned a mentor in the business school program and that was many, many years ago. My mentor now is about 95 and he has had a long and storied career and he’s been an amazing touchstone for me. Not necessarily in tech because that was not his background, but in just life, in thinking about your work and your life as the single unit because he’s had so many more years of experience. That one is very key to me. I do have what I consider my personal board of directors that I can just talk to and get advice. If I’m frustrated, if I’m not able to see the big picture, they really, really ground me.
How do you find a mentor or sponsor and any guidance on when to approach one versus another?
I think it’s a little bit easier from a point of commonality. If you see someone and you’re just kind of cold calling, if you will, to have them become a mentor, I think that’s a little bit harder. There has to be some sort of basis for the relationship, whether you’ve been in meetings together, whether they are really deeply invested in an area of personal interest for you, whether you have just a specific question. I do think mentorship can actually occur ad hoc. Meaning if you are trying to get someone’s advice about something in particular, you don’t have to… And I will say in my position, if someone comes up to me and they say, “Well, I want to meet with you once a month.” I’m like, “Whoa. Okay. That’s a big ask of my time.” But if it’s carefully thought out, if it’s, “I have this question with a scenario I’d really love to get your opinion and advice. What would you have done in this situation?” That’s like ad hoc mentorship that I’m always super happy to do.
I think that commonality, the what is the bond, and ultimately being very prepared and thinking about the mentor and what’s in it for them, like what can you share that would be extra learning for them? I think those are kind of two important areas to think about as you approach someone, as you’re trying to figure out who might be a good mentor for you.
What are some best practices for creating and maintaining these relationships?
I think it requires thoughtfulness and an investment of time. One person has to reach out to set up a touch base, in the before times, “Let’s meet for coffee,” because in person touch base is nice when you haven’t had that for a little while, but I do think it is understanding and not always having an ask, maybe just a check-in it. It is that what you said Ebony about maintaining that relationship and maintaining a relationship requires work. If you’re the mentee and you’re reaching out to a mentor, the mentor may check in on you, but as the mentee, it’s your… If you asked the question for example, and you had an ad hoc moment where you’re like, “Well, give me some advice on this particular scenario,” you should always go back around afterwards and say, “Hey. Well, this is what I did and this is how it turned out.” Always close that loop with the mentor and I think if you work at it, everything takes a little bit of work, it can be years and years of just a fruitful relationship.
One of the things I do is I like to send texts or through LinkedIn or whatever vehicle that we have in common and just check in, “How are you doing? Here’s what I’m doing. I just got married,” or, “Here’s what’s happening in my life,” just to keep the connection warm so that when I need them, it’s not always take, take, take, it’s that I’m invested in them and acknowledging that they have invested in me too. I’d love to switch gears and talk about how you’ve supported others in their career journey. Can you talk about your experience being a mentor or a sponsor, whichever one?
Well, if I had to count the number of people who would probably consider me a mentor, it probably is a larger number than I expected. There are a number of people I touch base with regularly, I would say probably on a quarterly basis and I’ve done so for years. There are people who used to work for me and don’t work for me anymore after moving teams who I still advise and stay in touch with because I care. I care about them as people after, again, having developed that relationship and I also want them to do well. And to your point, Ebony, if you’re mentoring someone and they do well, like what joy, what joy that brings because you really know that you’ve had an impact.
That, I think, is what the mentor gets out of all this. I also do a lot of ad hoc mentoring because the kind of the ongoing time commitment’s a little bit of a challenge, but if someone… I just got into a new organization and I have skipped leveled with, I don’t know, probably… I’m close to 50 people I’ve skipped leveled with now, so spending time to know someone, understand where they’re at, get their advice, so that’s a little bit different from mentoring, get their advice as I come into a new organization, but also check in and see what they’re facing, I think that is… That’s kind of a matter of course for me.
All right Neeracha, one thing I hear you talk about a lot, I love when you talk about it personally and professionally because it applies in both, is this importance of zooming out. Tell us more about that. You’re going to mentor all of us today.
Well, I think sometimes when someone comes to me and they are dealing with a decision and they think about that decision in a very discreet way like, “This is the thing I’m trying to decide. Do I stick it out here? Do I leave? I’m trying to get a promotion,” whatever that decision point is and one of my first pieces of advice is you got to zoom out. There may be frustration here, but think about the context, think about the context. This involves a lot of empathy as well. Think about the entire context, the other people involved in it who may be frustrating you, but think about what they’re about and then think bigger. I feel like zooming out, meaning taking a more holistic view of whatever challenge you’re facing, I think that really helps give perspective and helps, hopefully, have you think a little bit differently about what you’re dealing with.
I love that and I think it’s advice that anyone could use at any company or any stage in their life, just taking that zoom out. Let’s talk about, you just hit on this, a topic that a lot of people have questions about, especially when you’re mentoring them and that’s promotions. You and I talked in depth about this recently and I would love for you to share your thoughts on how to guide people who are really singularly focused on being promoted.
Yeah, that is actually a super common question that people ask and people ask me. I think that singular focus on promotions is if that’s what you’re focused on, it’s going to be hard. It’s not all within your control. No matter how great you are, no matter how well you’ve executed, there were a lot of other factors in the mix. I would say promotions are one thing… They’re certainly a validation of performance. They’re a recognition, but think about other things. Think about what you’re learning. Think about taking on new projects that help expand your knowledge areas, your sphere of control and remember that the old world of this standard career ladder where I get promoted every two years, in this day and age, it’s really not the norm anymore.
You go up, you go across, go across. Maybe you even go back down a little bit. Then you go across, then you go up again. I don’t even know what you call it, but it’s this graph that isn’t linear and it isn’t standard up and to the right all the way. So instead of thinking about a promotion as the goal, think bigger. Think, “Where do I want to be in a few years and how do I get there? Regardless of whether my title is manager or director, how do I get where I want to go?”
I also want to talk about the idea of being the only, the only woman, the only woman of color, whatever it may be for you in the room, how have you navigated this?
Gosh, I think you and I have spent quite a bit of time discussing it. It’s a little exhausting sometimes. That intersectionality means you bear the stereotypes, the burdens, if you will, it’s a little bit of a harsh word of, of both things; the gender, the race. I think it’s something that for me personally, I think of myself as just being there and being visible in leadership so others coming behind can see that it’s possible. As they say, “If you can see it, you can be it,” and that’s what I think about a lot. Perhaps not always enjoying being the only, but understanding that there is a responsibility and there is how we help all the people coming behind us.
Yeah and there can be a lot of pressure and being the only and you feel like you have the weight of the world or the whatever on your shoulders, but I-
You’re like a spokesperson for all these people and you didn’t really know. It was like, “Oh, wow.”
It can be a lot. But as you said, there is that desire to want to help people coming up behind us so we take that responsibility. In fact, we were just talking about this yesterday, in fact, we take that responsibility very seriously. Have you received any helpful advice from your mentors on this, on how to navigate?
The advice I’ve had from my mentors, which I’ve always taken to heart and it’s actually one of my personal values, is kindness and thinking about where someone is at and helping them right. Work is not life, although we have a combined work life that we all manage through. If you think about the legacy you want to leave in the world, the idea of making positive impact… We’re not curing cancer or anything here in technology, but the idea of making positive impact on people one at a time I think is still immense.
I want to shift gears again and I want to talk about what’s going on more recently with the rise of hate crimes and violence against the API community that’s been really devastating and just so horrible to watch. I’m curious about both sides of support. How have you both leaned into your network to get support and how have you approached giving support during this time? I know I’ve definitely seen you give your support, but I’d love to know how you approach this.
Yeah. I mean, it’s definitely a challenging time and just personally processing kind of the senseless violence we see and having racism, which may have always been there and conveniently you just kind of pack it in a little box and you put it away in the closet in the back of your head, having it rear its ugly head in a very obvious way with incidents that don’t seem to end, that I think personally has been very, very challenging. We at Salesforce run equality circles so our various team members can learn from each other, share and then listen to everyone’s experiences. And being a part of those, not only have I offered support, it’s actually been immensely supportive for me as I process through this.
I think it’s super interesting when you look at the lens of your personal experience and you’re like, “Well, did that happen because I’m Asian? Did that happen because I’m a woman?” It’s really hard to pinpoint that, so I think for me it’s caused a lot of self-examination and talking to mentors, both inside and outside the company in terms of how they’ve experienced this in their lives. I think that conversation, I learn something from every single conversation I have and I think the more conversations we have, the better the understanding and the more learning is imparted.
Thank you for sharing that. I know it was very personal and I hope the audience gets a lot of that. I have one more final kind of bonus question for you and I’m asking everyone about what their super power is. I like to say that one of mine is bringing out other people’s super powers, which is why I love mentoring. So Neeracha, what’s your superpower?
When I was a kid, we moved a lot. Different countries, different schools. I had to learn to adapt. I had to learn to fit in. I think my superpower is you put me next to anyone, say at a dinner party, and I can talk to them. I will find, whether you want me to or not, I will find that commonality, that shared something, no matter how small, and I will take that and I will run with it. I can sit next to anyone and I can derive a meaningful conversation.
Neeracha, having known you for over a decade, I have to say that’s absolutely true. It’s so fun to be in rooms and spaces with you. That is definitely your authentic superpower and I think it’s also what makes you a really good mentor to others and sponsor and colleague, friend. Thank you so much, Neeracha. I know we covered a lot today and I also know what’s going to be so helpful for everyone tuning in, so thank you so much for joining us.
This was such a wonderful conversation. We could keep talking forever.
We could. We could. I don’t know about you, but Neeracha’s comments really hit home for me today and I hope you found her comments just as helpful. You’ve sent in your questions, so let’s hear them.
Hi Ebony. My question is, how would you encourage a mentee to see the fullest range of potential for their future and imagine a reality in which the barriers that they felt were no longer present?
Hi, Kelly, and thank you for your question. I think it’s really important to zoom out and get a sense of the bigger picture. It can be really easy to get tunnel vision and feel limited in what we’re able to achieve. This is where having a mentor can really be helpful and powerful, especially if someone outside of your own department or even your company. They’ll be able to offer a different perspective and help you think beyond the role you’re in and maybe perhaps even the options that you currently have. I also try to remind myself that each career decision I make is a stepping stone and not the final destination. So if you have big dreams, keep going after them one step at a time.
Thank you so much for your questions and please keep them coming in. I will read some of them each episode, so please comment on our LinkedIn page or send me a Tweet at Ebony Beckwith using #BossTalks. I really hope you enjoy today’s conversation about mentorship and sponsorship. Now, if you want to learn more about the impact you can have as a mentor, head on over to Trailhead, Salesforce’s free online learning platform that helps anyone scale up for in demand jobs in the Salesforce ecosystem. With that, I’m Ebony Beckwith. Thank you so much for tuning in to Boss Talks and we’ll see you all next time.