Inspiring leaders are not just mentors, they are sponsors

As part of the 30 days of Inspirational Leadership series, I had the pleasure of interviewing EY Global Director Janelle Reiko Sasaki.

During our conversation, Janelle told me that “Mentorship is a start. If you’re having challenges, a mentor can give you advice and share stories about lessons they’ve learned or how they’ve built their own leadership skills. But sponsors will take it to the next level. They will talk about you to the key decision makers. They will consider you for prime opportunities. They will advocate for you and give you the career opportunities that will move you ahead. Because they believe in your potential.”

Hearing these words from Janelle resonated so deeply with me. When I think about the leaders I truly admire, the ones I want to emulate, I see that those people are sponsors to others. They lift the people around them up, they help people succeed, and they find opportunities that will help their team grow. This ultimately enables the greater “machine” to operate more efficiently, more effectively, and with great joy and capacity.

So my question for anyone reading this is, where can you become a sponsor and not just a mentor?

Janelle's Bio

Janelle Sasaki leads the strategy and initiatives of EY Global Women Athletes Business Network (WABN) for women athletes and entrepreneurs. She is passionate about addressing the needs of businesses to find diverse talent and women athletes on realizing their leadership potential in the business world.

Janelle’s background includes providing innovative branding and human resources solutions to multinational organizations for over 18 years. She served as a consultant at EY Japan People Advisory Services focusing on diversity and inclusion (D&I), global talent management and work style innovation. She frequently addresses these topics at international conferences on these subjects.

Prior to EY Japan, Janelle served as the D&I Leader for a technology company in Asia-Pacific, where she launched the company-wide D&I business strategy and addressed workplace challenges. Janelle leverages her more than 10 years of experience as a former competitive gymnast to address the challenges facing women in the 21st-century workplace.


Sarah Wells: Great. Okay. Janelle, thank you so much for joining and I’m so excited to chat with you. You have been an incredible, a new friend of mine. That’s coming to my life through the EY WABN program, which stands for Women Athlete Business Network. And you’ve been… You’ve worked with some amazing people alongside you at EY, and then I’m sure with some entrepreneurs and upcoming female leaders. I’m really, really interested in your definition of what is inspirational leadership to you?

Janelle Sasaki: Well, first off, thank you Sarah, for allowing me to join today. And I’m so honored to be interviewed and also help your initiative move forward. And congratulations once again, for being selected for the EY Women Athletes Business Network. Your first question is how would I define leadership? And I would say that I’d like to start with maybe the traits first, if I may.

Sarah Wells: Absolutely.

Janelle Sasaki: What comes to me is, inspiring leaders speak from the heart. They’re purposeful, they’re authentic. And I think authentic leadership is absolutely key for inspirational leaders as this is the foundation of respect and showing respect for others. But I would say most importantly, one of the traits that is at the top of my list is that inspiring leaders are calm during challenging conditions-

Sarah Wells: Interesting.

Janelle Sasaki: Situations. They’re very centered. It’s very mindful that enables leaders to remain calm under challenging times to really empathize, listen deeply and remain present. Because as you know, the workplace is very challenging. I mean, we deal with challenges on an everyday basis. So it’s really how you get through the challenging times, which I think shows a great leader.

Sarah Wells: I love that emphasis on element of calm. It’s almost like that parent or nurturer where that… That’s the way we all survive is when we… Through like over time, like where we needed to feel safe, we need to know that someone is going to feed us. And I think that’s a really great highlight of something that I actually haven’t heard yet from all of the interviews. [crosstalk 00:02:38].

Janelle Sasaki: I love being kind of ahead of like, I just… I guess my experience, my background in Silicon Valley really formed my innovative mindset to kind of think differently to kind of be ahead like five to 10 years to look ahead and to be visionary. And I know that’s kind of a unique answer, but I also can relate to this as well. And because I’ve had a lot of inspiring leaders around me have this trait. In addition to that, I wanted to share, there is a WABN athlete in our program in 2016 and she mentioned… And she’s a rower. And she mentioned to me that on her final race at the Olympics in Rio, she felt a sense of calmness.

Sarah Wells: Love that.

Janelle Sasaki: Right before she won the gold medal. And I thought, “Wow.” I’ve never even heard that before, but I mean, she was calm. She won the gold medal. I guess there’s a lot that goes into that. Creating that confidence-

Sarah Wells: Right. Preparation. Yes exactly.

Janelle Sasaki: Right. I just thought, it’s kind of related.

Sarah Wells: Absolutely. Well, I think that there’s so much to be said for when you have to make those tough decisions, whether it’s her in a boat or a leader, having to decide how they’re going to stretch resources or reorganize the team for a new big project. And if you have your mind’s in chaos, like you can miss some things. You can be overwhelmed by everything that’s circling around you, but having that sense of calm you actually… That’s why people are big on meditation before you start your work day because you actually quiet your mind, you quiet your thoughts and you’re actually able to be more effective.

Sarah Wells: I love that there’s that story in sport that you’ve seen translate into the business world, I’ll ask, like, what is your personal story with that? Do you have someone who you had as a mentor or guide a peer who you’ve seen operating, like set the scene, give me the story. I want to know the juicy details of how did it go down and were you like, “Wow. I’m drawn to that leader.” You feel something about it, like just like very inspiring.

Janelle Sasaki: Sure. Absolutely. I mean, I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded with inspiring leaders throughout my career, starting in Silicon valley and then my transfer to Japan as well. And then also working in this global role now. I get to work with leaders around the world inside and outside of EY. And I would say that the inspiring leaders use their unique combination of strengths to motivate these individuals and teams to take on new challenges and hold them accountable for results. It’s like what we do at WABN unlocking the leadership potential for our women athletes. I would say that one story that comes to mind that’s more recent is that, our project team took on this very major project for the G20 summit. The G20 summit was held in Osaka Japan in 2019. And I raised my hand because-

Sarah Wells: Because you’re an athlete.

Janelle Sasaki: Well, yeah. And I felt that my mentor and my manager at the time who actually became a sponsor. Mentors advise but sponsor’s act. She had asked me before to take on this project. And so she… I think she believed in my potential more than I believed in myself quite honestly. And so she nominated me as the project lead and she was the executive sponsor for the project and EY, we went into sponsor the world economic forum to boost women’s economic empowerment. So that was the project and basically we are responsible for creating the [Communi-k 00:07:23] and the Communi-k will eventually go to the leaders of the G20 summit.

Janelle Sasaki: At the time it was Abe, prime minister Abe. And we would present that, Communi-k the statement on how to boost women’s economic empowerment to Abe to take our recommendations. And there are three different work streams in this Communi-k. One is labor, one is digital, and then one is entrepreneurship and financial. And we were actually assigned the labor. And we were really having a lot of challenges. There was a lot of different personalities, a lot of unique perspectives. And we were really having a very challenging time kind of making progress. And we had some leaders from the committee say, “Well, we’re going to actually have another person help you.” But the person was kind of very focused on their space, but EY had a lot of experience in helping and creating this Communi-k from past G20 summits.

Janelle Sasaki: Anyway, long story short, we were really, really having some challenges to move forward and making progress. I talked to my leader and her name is Katakura [Masami 00:09:03] and Katakura Masami is really… She has this quiet confidence about herself. She makes amazing sound decisions very quickly. And that’s very unique for Japan because typically decisions are made very slowly here in Japan. And I was telling her about these challenges that we were having, that it was really hard to move forward. And so she said, “Janelle make your decision about maybe shifting to the other pillar where you can help in other ways, because we have some thought leadership around digital technology and how that impacts the womens element in all of this.”

Janelle Sasaki: And so she had these ideas kind of outside the box where we didn’t have to stay with something that was assigned to us, we can kind of pitch and shift to the other pillar where we can maximize our thought leadership, maximize our team’s effort, have an easier time to make progress. I guess the key takeaway is that she made this decision very quickly. She also was not in a box, she thought outside the box because why stay in the box, why not go outside the box and help in other areas. And after that we became the digital expert and gave our thought leadership in the Communi-k around digital technology and how that would impact women’s empowerment. And it worked out much more smoothly and seamlessly. I was very grateful because I was just really struggling as a project leader, but she says, “Be kind to yourself and let’s do something different.”

Sarah Wells: I love that.

Janelle Sasaki: I hope that explains what we kind of went through-

Sarah Wells: Oh my God. I think it’s really interesting, not only was she calm to tie back to what you would identify as big, inspirational leadership quality, but she was also comfortable going against what’s expected.

Janelle Sasaki: Exactly.

Sarah Wells: And I think that, to add to your… Not only just was she calm is also, she remembered what was really important, which was for you to show up and showcase who you were and who the organization was and what you could do on a greater scale. And I think that’s really, really powerful, and she sounds… You’re going to have to… I’m going to have to follow her on LinkedIn too, because she sounds like a pretty awesome lady.

Janelle Sasaki: She is. She’s our first chairwoman for EY Japan. And I want to be like her one day. She’s-

Sarah Wells: When you grow up. Yeah.

Janelle Sasaki: Yeah, when I grow up and like I said, she’s my mentor and sponsor. And she… I just learn from her, when I work with her. And one of the things too is like you mentioned the calmness and the sound decision making, but she’s also a doer, a working leader. She’s not afraid. I mean, we were there like till two o’clock in the morning trying to finish the project and she was there helping us.

Sarah Wells: I love that. It’s not like hierarchical, it’s like we’re in this together.

Janelle Sasaki: Exactly. Which Japan tends to be that way in many of the work styles. She’s quite ahead of her time.

Sarah Wells: I love that. That’s really… I want to dive in just one more thing. If you have another minute here, you said mentors advise and sponsors act?

Janelle Sasaki: Yes.

Sarah Wells: Can you tell me more about that?

Janelle Sasaki: Yeah, so I don’t know if you heard this study, but forget mentors and engage sponsors, which maybe I shouldn’t say that with a women athletes, this network global mentoring program, but mentorship is a start. And so mentors can give you advice. If you’re having challenges, also they can provide any type of sharing their stories about how they’ve kind of built their leadership skills and also lessons learned as well. Sponsors though we’ll take it to the next level. They will talk about you to the key decision makers. They will consider you for these prime opportunities. They will advocate for you to kind of give you these career opportunities to move ahead.

Sarah Wells: Wow.

Janelle Sasaki: Because they believe in your potential. They talk about you, they sponsor you for new opportunities, projects, and really take your career to the next level.

Sarah Wells: And I think as we’re all trying to engage in the conversation more around elevating women in C-suite executive positions or just in business in general and in many roles, really. I think that’s such a powerful distinction that I really want to take to heart and think about my own… My mentors I have in my life and maybe I’ve been miscalling them because they might actually be sponsors. They really are amazing.

Janelle Sasaki: Exactly.

Sarah Wells: And then how can I be that person for other people and be that sponsor opposed to just a mentor, because I think that’s the difference maker. We can talk all day or throw our advice around, but unless it’s actioned, it really doesn’t actually help elevate us as quickly or as effectively as we might be talking about that we want, so that’s really powerful to me.

Janelle Sasaki: You got it. That’s very well stated. 

Sarah Wells: Thanks to you.

Janelle Sasaki: No, I mean, we need to probably talk about that in WABN as well, because I think the first step is mentoring. And building your network of advisors and then figuring out who can kind of be that enabler and take action.

Sarah Wells: Yes. I love that. Janelle, this has been amazing. I have written many notes, you have no idea. I asked for just one definition and  I took away about 17 different things I think. I love it. It’s amazing. It’s very powerful. You are a wise lady. I feel very fortunate to have you in my life. Thank you for sharing your ideas around inspirational leadership. And we’ll be certainly sharing this online for more people to have access to your brilliance. Thanks for coming on today.

Janelle Sasaki: It’s my pleasure. And your gratitude inspires me.

Sarah Wells:

That’s so sweet. Thanks so much Janelle.

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