“What you need is a mentor” — you have probably heard that piece of advice at some point in your career. While this concept has good intentions, it has two inherent flaws:

* It assumes that a single mentor can meet the employee’s needs

In reality, an employee needs more than a single dedicated mentor to reach his potential.

For instance, a mentor who is technically very sound may not have the emotional quotient to help the mentee navigate the inevitable ups and downs of a career.

A mentor who was perfect when you started your job may not be so helpful as your goals and career evolve.

Therefore, what is needed is a network of mentors — a network that represents a variety of competencies and varying degrees of expertise to help an individual navigate different stages of their career.

* It presents an incomplete picture

You don’t need just a mentor — you need a sponsor too.

What is the difference? A mentor answers questions and offers advice.

A sponsor acts on your behalf — helping you to advance in knowledge and in success by providing you with helpful advice and by working behind the scenes for your benefit.

As Ms Jan Combopiano, vice-president and chief knowledge officer of Catalyst, explains: “Mentors support you face-to-face. Sponsors advocate for you behind closed doors.”

It is an important distinction to understand.

Access to the right mentors and sponsors at the right time can be a major factor in determining your level of professional success. 

While building relationships with mentors and sponsors may not seem like a priority at the moment, if you wait until you need them, it will be too late.

Not sure where to start? Below are three tips:

* Look in more than one place or direction

The first place to look is the most obvious — within your company. Seek out experienced professionals and attempt to strike up a relationship.

A great first step may be to invite them out for coffee so that you can “pick their brain”. Ask questions and listen.

Do not miss out on the opportunities provided by “reverse mentoring”, that is, mentoring from people who may be lower in the hierarchy or younger than you.

This requires openness to the idea that good advice can come from many quarters.

Finally, leverage the power of the Internet. For example, scanning profiles on LinkedIn can give you an idea of people in your field who have the expertise you are looking for.

* Attend professional networking events

Before you attend such events, scan the list of all those attending and see who might be a good mentor to approach. If needed, send an e-mail message in advance informing them how you look forward to meeting with them.

Knowing about any work they have done can help make a connection quickly.

Touch base after the event is over. Don’t be disheartened if you don’t hear from them. There are many others who may have the time or inclination to help you.

* Look for opportunities to give, not just to receive

When you are new in an industry or with a company, you have more questions than answers. But do your best to help others out — you never know how such a relationship may benefit you in the future.

You must approach the mentoring network and possible sponsors not as a transactional event but as a relational one. It is something you need to nurture and grow over time.

There is no bank in the world where you can only make withdrawals. You need to make deposits too. Find out ways to be helpful and show your gratitude to your mentors and sponsors.

Prove yourself

Above all, remember that in any relationship — whether with your mentoring network or your sponsor — you must prove to be a worthy mentee.

Sponsors and mentors can help raise your performance potential and zone of achievement but the hard work must come from you.

No matter how intelligent or determined you are, there will be times when you simply don’t have the answers. In those circumstances, your sponsors and mentors will be your saving grace.

Start now to lay out a strategy for building your network.