As the story goes, Walt Disney had a key piece of advice to the executives planning the Magic Kingdom: Build the castle first. Disney understood that everyone involved in achieving his vision — from the Madison Avenue advertisers selling it to the guys hacking their way through the mosquito-infested Florida swamp — needed literally to see the beauty of this vision to remind them what they were working toward. So the first thing to rear up out of the swamp was, in fact, Cinderella's Castle, which, with its fluttering flats and whimsical turrets, was the very embodiment of the magic he intended to make.
Building a successful career is equally arduous. No matter what you bring to the undertaking, you need a vision: not just a destination but an inspiration. Direction and drive will serve you well but you've got to see where you're headed to push forward and progress toward your goal.
Start by performing a diagnostic on your dream. Consider these questions: What place would feel magical? With whom would you like to share that space? What sort of conversation would you like to have with them? What sort of transformation do you most like to drive? This blue-sky thinking will serve to sketch out your career castle construction strategy.
Once you've done the heavy lifting of imagining your future, you can get pragmatic about assessing what you bring to the task. You needn't do this in a vacuum. Online assessment tools, workplace performance evaluations, classes and seminars are all good opportunities to hold a mirror to yourself and discover hidden treasures. If you haven't had a performance review, formal or informal, ask for one; no matter what size company you work for, somebody's taking your measure. Don't miss out on the opportunity to benefit from their perspective.
But these first steps can only get you so far. Success is never a solo endeavor. You need to find the right people to support you, advise you, and stretch you to realize your dream. Mentors and sponsors are vital, and each brings special strengths and attributes to your cause.
Mentors shine as you start to define your dream. They can see and put into words for you what you may not see about yourself or be able to articulate. They can help you determine your strengths: what you do exceptionally well and what sets you apart. In addition, they can help narrow your focus as you tackle such amorphous topics as what accomplishments have given you joy and won you accolades, what gives you satisfaction, and whether the mission or mandate of your organization overlap with your own set of values. This is heavy lifting, so don't be surprised if your mentor doesn't have the time or ability to assist in all of these areas, but can only provide some advice and wisdom.
A well-chosen mentor will also know the lay of the land in your firm and help you learn to navigate the corporate ladder. Research from the Center for Talent Innovation shows that the vast majority of women (85%) and multicultural professionals (81%) need navigational help. Mentors can help you understand the unwritten rules, provide a map for the uncharted corridors to power, and reveal "the business behind the business." Most important, by assisting you with this essential assessment, they prepare you to attract sponsors.
If mentors help define the dream, sponsors are the dream-enablers. Sponsors deliver: They make you visible to leaders within the company — and to top people outside as well. They connect you to career opportunities and provide air cover when you encounter trouble. When it comes to opening doors, they don't stop with one promotion: They'll see you to the threshold of power. They will make sure your castle gets constructed.
It's important to differentiate between mentors and sponsors, between sideline cheerleaders and center-ring champions. A mentor is a counselor, someone who will lend a sympathetic ear, act as a sounding board, and offer advice and encouragement. But where mentors often take an interest in you out of altruism or like-mindedness, sponsors get involved because they see furthering your career as an important boost to their own career, influence or vision. Mentors advise; sponsors act.
Finding the right support system as you define your vision is vital to career success. It's important, though, to remember that neither mentors nor sponsors can construct a castle for you. You have to commit to being the architect of your career. But once you do sketch out that blueprint, you will be able to identify and enlist the mentors and sponsors who can help you turn it into reality.