Female mentoring another female

Oprah: Self-made woman? Or is there more to the story?

Oprah Winfrey is one of the most successful people on the planet. Although her hard work and talents greatly contributed to her immense popularity, Oprah actually credits much of her meteoric rise to a key mentor early in her career. While working as a news anchor in Baltimore, Oprah crossed paths with the prominent mayor at the time, Johnny Olson. Impressed by her talents, Olson took Oprah under his wing and became an invaluable guide and advocate.

Olson pushed Oprah to develop her abilities, but his mentorship went far beyond just advice — Olson used his position of power and influence to create opportunities that Oprah likely never would have gotten on her own. He insisted she host her own local talk show, then actively worked to get the show syndicated and aired nationwide, paving the way for The Oprah Winfrey Show's eventual launch and her leap to international stardom.

Oprah has been quoted, saying, "Johnny Olson saw me and that is how we ended up on The Oprah Winfrey Show. He said, 'That girl is going places and I'm going to help her get there.'" Without Olson's guidance, connections, and willingness to go to bat for her, Oprah's path to becoming a global icon may have looked dramatically different.

What Oprah had was a power mentor—an influential leader positioned and motivated to proactively create pathways for their mentee’s advancement. Not just an advisor providing feedback and recommendations, but an active sponsor capable of making things happen through their leadership influence.

Power mentorship in my life

I’ve been given lots of opportunities I never should have received based on resume and experience alone. In fact just recently I shared my big “break out” story on LinkedIn of when I got my first B2B sales job when I had no experience at all. 

Altruism and “giving back” to set up others for success is a major component of being a power mentor. As a power mentor, you see the blessings and opportunities you’ve received, and with the power and influence that you have you seek to pave the way for others to reach new heights that they may not be able to achieve on their own.

I was recently told by someone in my life that I’m a power mentor to her. This caught me by surprise, as that isn’t a title or mentality I had prior to that conversation. However, in reflection, it’s true. She didn’t have a four-year degree, carried a history of non-profit and retail jobs, but had a big heart, an incredible work ethic, and a history of delivering on every stretch assignment and role she was ever given. She had all the makings of the ideal employee who you’d want to see succeed if just given a chance.

When I had the opportunity to bring her into a B2B company, despite her lack of experience, I leapt at the chance. Her roles, titles, and responsibilities were things far outside her comfort zone, and on paper she would not have been the ideal hire. But I knew there was something inside of her that would flourish, and she rose to the occasion. She tackled roles in customer success, marketing, sales, support, social media management, sales enablement, and much more.

Now, years later, she continues to take on stretch assignments, continues to tackle new challenges, and her career path is completely different. She could be an executive within a matter of a couple years if she wanted, and only a few years ago she felt like she had a dead-end career. That’s all because of a combination of what she brings to the table inherently, and the difference a power mentor can make.

Power Mentor

An influential leader positioned and motivated to proactively create pathways for their mentee’s advancement. 

The difference power mentors make

Having this kind of power mentor in your corner can be wholly transformative for your career, accelerating your growth in ways that are extremely difficult to achieve through hard work and achievements alone. As Tom Burns, an accomplished senior executive recently on the Frontline Industry Podcast with me, put it, "Power mentors are the difference between good careers and great careers." Their backing provides you access to high-impact roles, elite networking opportunities, and levels of visibility that may have otherwise stayed out of reach.

Of course, earning this level of committed mentorship requires proving your abilities and potential over time. Power mentors invest deeply in their protégés, so you must demonstrate you're dedicated enough to capitalize on that investment. They also expect you to bring value beyond just receiving wisdom, whether that's innovative ideas, an eagerness to listen and learn, emotional intelligence, or a willingness to be a "reverse mentor" at times. Donnebra McClendon Head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Dayforce said recently on another Frontline Industry Podcast episode, “In order for you to earn sponsorship, you have to prove yourself worthy of that.”

Nurturing the mentoring bond

The greatest challenge is often finding and securing these power mentors in the first place. You'll need to identify leaders whose interests align with yours, establish relevant connections, and take the initiative to build and actively maintain those relationships over months and years.

Tom Burns advises, "The first thing someone has to do is be proactive. You have to maintain the relationship." Don't hesitate to clearly communicate what you're seeking from them and be open to candid feedback.

The rewards when these bonds solidify are immense. Power mentors can tangibly elevate your career accomplishments, trajectory, and earnings potential in ways few other factors can match. Just as importantly though, they can leave an indelible imprint on your growth as a leader and person. Tom Burns mentioned to me that, “I haven’t had to interview for like twenty years.” What a benefit to enjoy!

So follow the lead of those like Oprah, Tom Burns, and Donnebra McClendon, and create space in your life for these uniquely transformative relationships. Have the courage to identify and proactively pursue power mentors who could be catalysts for your own journey of fulfilling your highest potential, both professionally and personally.

My hope is that, in the end, everyone reading gets a power mentor. “You get a power mentor, and you get a power mentor!”

Listen to the full podcast conversations with Tom Burns and Donnebra McClendon.

About the Author

Joel Onyshuk | Atana Senior VP of Sales

As the Senior VP of Sales at Atana, Joel Onyshuk is driven by his passion for building high-performance teams. Equipped with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology, he is committed to understanding human behavior and unleashing the potential of those around him. In addition to leading Atana's sales efforts,  Joel hosts the Frontline Industry Podcast where he engages in conversations with top senior executives who share leadership best practices and ways to positively impact company culture.