This week, I offer you a story that speaks to the loss you feel when your sponsor moves on.

Colleen grew up craving stability. In fact, she signed up for an internship at her accounting firm plus a full-time position post grad school before her senior year at college! Colleen learned perseverance and purpose from her parents:

My dad had the morning shift and my mom had the night shift. But they both came home for dinner and their work never came up! My dad said, ‘you do what you have to do in order to do what you want to do.’ You suck it up now to take some of the pressure off later on. That’s my perspective on work and life too. Staying five years is nothing if you are going to have a 35-year career. I told myself I would leave when I stopped being challenged, but it hasn’t happened yet.

My parents grew up in the Civil Rights movement and indoctrinated us to think we could do anything we wanted to do. The world was bigger than South Carolina.

For years, everything rolled along merrily. So it came as a shock to Colleen when her sponsor announced that she was leaving for a better opportunity:

She was the person who had my back! I thought, What am I going to do? I cried at work that day. It was part shock and part fear. I had worked so hard to get on her good side! She told me, “You’re great because of you. You’ve been carrying it so far.” She gave me a window of two months. I told her I was pissed and we laughed. It took me three weeks to get over it. I had to distance myself because I knew it was coming.

It hit me again when the project we had done together came round again and I had to work with a partner with a very different personality. I had to take control of the project on my own since he didn’t know me. It was scary, looking over my shoulder to see if I was doing things right.

Her sponsor’s departure was a turning point in Colleen’s career. First she put her head down to complete the project. That showed Colleen that she could perform without her sponsor. It emboldened her in new ways:

It took a good two quarters to get used to the new person. We didn’t mesh at all. That was weird. My sponsor had been hands-off but she became hands-on when necessary. Her replacement was hands off without really helping. He was not a partner, but a boss. He said, “I fly in and swoop back out!” He asked why I didn’t say anything. I said, “I’m just an associate and it’s not my place.” I started to understand his pattern. I had to rise to the occasion and get it done. I just did it my way. I thought, If you don’t like how it’s done, show me what you want.

Then I shifted to the attitude that I could do anything. New projects popped up. Where I might shy away, I took them on. Curious to know what was going on, I started interacting more with the client, speaking my opinion without thinking I had to have approval. When someone asked me a question and I answered in two seconds, I realized that I could not have done that before.

My sponsor’s departure made me float and then swim on my own. It was almost like I learned without knowing I had learned. I had to trust myself because I had no one else to lean on. It was a pretty amazing feeling! I did it. I proved myself not only to everyone else, I proved it to me.

Colleen’s sponsor still checked in with her quarterly, counseling and guiding from an outside perspective. And eventually, the new partner became Colleen’s next mentor.

So what?

Colleen experienced loss when her sponsor left. Remarkably, her growth also accelerated.

It’s tough to be abandoned at work! But remaining behind as your sponsor leaves is normal. People routinely move on. Give yourself time to experience and share what you’re feeling. Recognize that the discomfort and disruption you feel indicate a big change underway. Change promises growth if you are willing to embrace it.

At minimum, ask your departing sponsor or mentor for her honest view on all your development needs. Also, review how you worked together and decide what you want to do differently. Face the truth that your new relationship will not be the same.

When the dust resettled, Colleen found herself with one sponsor, another mentor, and even better—more capability and confidence than when she started.

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