It was only a few years ago that I began to understand the role mentorship can play for women in the business world. I had no models for my career when I got out of college more than 20 years ago. So I largely went it alone, forging ahead with my career mojo of hard work and a fierce hunger to learn.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve worked with knowledgeable, creative and dynamic women but I was never in a position to avail myself of them specifically as a mentor. I had no idea you could just ask (who knew that was a thing?), and I know my career would have been better for it.
Now that I am firmly a card-carrying member of the mid-career crew, I can easily look back and pick out a few things that can be helpful to someone at the starting gate.
At its core mentoring is a relationship of guidance and encouragement, peppered with measurable goals and accountability. Even if you didn’t have the benefit of your own mentor, you can still provide value to a young woman in the early stages of her career by focusing on a few key concepts.
Listen to understand
The skill of listening is hands down the foundation of any successful relationship. In order to get to the specific goals and aspirations of your mentee, you need to hear what’s in her heart. But listening to understand is different than listening to speak.
Often when we’re listening to someone talk about a challenge or problem, we are calculating our response to them — while they’re still speaking. We’re so eager to get our point across that we miss out on important information.
Listening to understand means listening to your mentee with true empathy, summarizing what she said to make sure you have the details straight, asking open-ended questions to clarify anything, and physically giving her your undivided attention.
It’s a deliberate approach but it will leave her feeling as if she’s really been heard, which will encourage her to open up even more.
This is a good way to build rapport quickly with your mentee and get your relationship underway.
It’s also pretty much the best way to engage in all your relationships.
Encourage your mentee to take the reins
While it’s important to do the hard work of active listening with your mentee, it’s also important to remember that she is the one benefiting from your wisdom and knowledge. In doing so, your mentee should take the lion’s share of the work.
She should take the lead in scheduling your time together and have clear ideas and questions about what she’d like to discuss during your meetings. It will certainly be more of a collaborative effort as your relationship grows, but you shouldn’t find yourself managing all the details of her mentorship experience.
Making sure you’re meeting on a regular basis and coming up with good content for your sessions together really falls on the mentee. This is how she learns to take ownership of her career and relationships.
If you feel like you’re working too hard at the relationship you should bring it up with your mentee and re-clarify her goals for the experience.
Challenge your mentee to get uncomfortable
Some of my most gratifying and successful projects came about because I put myself in an uncomfortable and somewhat visible place. As women we don’t always like to move forward unless we have planned everything to death or spent hours in preparation. Learning to take action before feeling 100% ready (or 90% or 80%…) is a valuable skill to teach any young woman.
Encouraging your mentee to volunteer for challenging projects or take on a leadership role she may not yet feel prepared to take on is a great way to build her confidence. Action builds confidence, there’s just no way around it.
The added bonus for your mentee is that you’ll be with her as she makes that move so she doesn’t have to go it alone.
Above all, be patient as you build your relationship. Hopefully you and your mentee will hit it off right away, but it may take a few sessions to feel as if you are really connecting. Meaningful relationships take time to develop.
Be patient most importantly with yourself. While you may not see visible effects of your mentorship right away, you may not realize how much you’re affecting her in small ways. Sometimes one comment from you can be all she needs to look at herself in a different light.
Investing your time and experience in another person is a rewarding benefit of reaching this stage of your career.
You may not have had the benefit of someone to walk with you in your own career, but your own achievements will provide your mentee plenty of inspiration to start achieving her own goals.