At the last meetup several speakers testified to the power of having a mentor that has helped them develop their power. It certainly struck a chord with me, but it seems that I have a common problem with actually turning my wish for a mentor into action.
Problem being: it seems a bit, well, weird, to ask. And - bonus points problem - what if it doesn’t work out? Won’t it be like the most awkward break up ever?
I know that these are rather adolescent fears and I’m not proud of them, but there they are. So with that in mind I have turned to Google to find out how the grownups do it and what I can do to level up my mentee-ing game. There is a lot of advice out there on mentoring, some good, some not so much. Here’s a roundup of what resonated with me:
Think hard about what you want from a mentor.
Depending on your career and interests you may be looking for advice on anything: someone to give you feedback on technical skills, help you navigate a transition to management, provide thoughts on your startup’s funding strategy or support you in maintaining a work/life balance. These are not likely to be the same person, nor, actually will a mentoring relationship work the same way for each challenge.
Additionally, recognise that a very important part of mentoring is that it is a highly human relationship. You need to share values and a common approach to life to make the arrangement work. This is something quite difficult to plan for but asking yourself what sort of attitudes won’t work for you is probably an important bit of preparation.
(Advice that doesn’t work for me is the idea that you simply look to women you admire. I don’t want to become a clone of anyone, and for a mentor this agenda seems likely to create the sort of open ended relationship that would drive me nuts.)
Where do the best mentors come from?
Your ideas about the what you need will tell you how wide you might want to cast the net. Do you need someone from inside your company, your industry, or actually from a totally different industry where the same skill sets are valued? Do you, in fact, need to develop relationships with a number of different mentors?
Mentors don’t necessarily need to be more senior than you, either. Peer mentoring can work really well - or even getting mentoring from someone earlier in their career but with more expertise than you.
If you have a clear idea of the sort of questions you want answered you might find that your mentoring opportunities come from unexpected directions - women you meet doing side projects, or in a social context. Here’s an idea (from a professional woman in Canadian banking) that may seem a little mechanical, but I could see it working:
‘If, however, you’re not surrounded in your corporation with those opportunities or women you want – I have found it really helpful to figure out, “Where do these people go in the evenings? or on their weekends – that I can either, join the club, or join a group, or join a sport? Something that puts me in the limelight with these people, to develop a trusting relationship that actually has nothing to do with work and what we’re doing in our job, but allows us to bond.”
I have found this to be so helpful in my own career. I’ve signed up for triathlon training groups, or charity fundraisers – anything that puts me into a different set of professional people. And then, we do something together – you establish trust by that shared common goal. And then, all of a sudden, you’re willing to do anything for these people – and them for you. So, it can be a mentor-mentee relationship. Doesn’t matter if they’re more senior or more junior professionally; you can help each other. And that’s the point: to establish trust as a person, and bond – and that can take you anywhere.’
First, catch your mentor…
Now for the tricky part. There seem to be two schools of thought on how to get the mentoring relationship rolling. Once you know what you’re after, there’s the possibility of a serendipitous development of a relationship from elsewhere in your life, to quote: ’be coachable and passionate and curious. Some of the best mentoring relationships, you might never have the conversation about whether or not you’re a mentor or a mentee. But you both know it, and they’re happy to play that part for you.’
And then, for those of us who can’t wait for serendipity, there’s the warm approach. If you’ve been thinking for a while about the sort of advice and relationship you might want you’ve probably found a few people who fit the bill. Before you get anywhere near asking any questions see if you can find ways to be helpful to these people - for example contributing to a project or finding ways to promote their work. It’s a soft way of engaging with someone with the added bonus that you will find out a little more about whether they have the personality to be a good fit for you.
At some point, you’ll need to put your head over the parapet and ask a question. I like the idea that you ask for their help on one very specific issue, ideally one that can be dealt with in a quick meeting. If you feel good rapport - and the results from that are good, then make sure to feed back to them how helpful it was. And that’s the point at which you might want to ask if they could get into a formal mentoring relationship.
What both of these share is the idea that you need to invest in the relationship before you take out of it. Which takes away a lot of the apprehension about making The Big Ask. Although you still should be prepared for a no!
Navigating how it might work.
Some relationships are more formal than others; the spectrum can range from regular commitments from both sides and specific goals to someone who agrees to act as an ad hoc sounding board for specific challenges. Obviously it helps if both parties have an agreement about how it should work. Either way, a common theme seems to be that mentors get a lot more from the arrangement where mentees come with the right mindset:
- preparing to be challenged and taking suggestions on board
- feeding back on how the suggestions have worked for them, especially if it has had a positive impact
- looking for opportunities to practise what is discussed
- finding ways of giving back to your mentor - recommendations, support on any pet projects they are running, constructive feedback, nominations for awards, all are good ideas to recognise the work they put in.
If this DIY approach all seems a little laborious, there are also a number of formal mentoring networks that seek to match women with experienced, relevant professionals. This is a whole subject in itself but WIT will be looking at what is going on in this space. Get in touch if you’re involved!
What’s in it for me again?
Mapped out a mentor game plan but still a bit apprehensive about it? The combination of fear, pride and busy-ness can put some serious barriers in the way of actually implementing the idea. If you’re having that argument in your head, a great way to work out if you really should go for it is to read about the emotional experience of people who have tried it, or even come talk to women who have mentors. We’ll be looking at mentoring at our next WIT event; if you’ve done it, are thinking about it, or even if you think it’s not for you, come along and share your ideas.