Raise your hand if you have ever felt like you needed some guidance at your job — and didn’t know where to look for it.
Whether we’ve been in our role for days or years, there are always times when looking up to a trusted higher-up for answers could transform our experience and help us reach success. This is especially true for women and people of color, for whom it is highly unusual to be able to relate to or feel represented by management or organizational leaders. Did you know that in the US, only 26% of C-suite executives are women, despite making up roughly half of the workforce? And the proportion is even lower for women of color, who represent 5% of C-suite-level roles in corporate America, according to the same McKinsey report.
The numbers are stark. But mentoring women, and especially women of color, can help bridge the gap and bring representation to all industries. As a woman, having someone you can relate to in a leadership position is empowering. Knowingly or not, women leaders inspire and shape the younger generations in all aspects of their lives. Being a mentor can transform your organization, your mentee’s life, and your vision of success.
The importance of mentorship for women in leadership
Let’s start by defining what a mentor is. In its simplest form, a mentor is someone who has experience in the areas you’re hoping to develop and is willing to guide and support you as you walk the same path. They serve as a trusted advisor to whom the mentee can come and ask for advice, help, or recommendations.
For girls and young women, having a mentor can mean the difference between staying in school and advancing a career in STEM or following a more traditional path. Having a mentor shows that their goals and aspirations are genuinely achievable — that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
On the other hand, serving as a mentor can be a fulfilling experience that allows you to flex your social muscles, establish rapport with your mentee, expand your network, and demonstrate your expertise. You will also feel a sense of satisfaction and a boost in confidence in your skills.
Mentorship vs. coaching
So far, it may sound like coaching and mentoring someone is very similar. And it’s true — there is a lot of overlap between the two. Both roles speak from personal experience and provide advice and guidance. However, the main difference between mentorship vs. coaching is that mentors offer advice and guidance only, but coaches provide actionable steps to achieve an objective. A mentor takes a more general approach to help their mentees find the right path, while a coach typically works with the client toward achieving a specific goal.
Mentorship is also a more casual commitment. In fact, unbeknownst to you, someone may look up to you as a mentor. On the other hand, a coach often requires credentials or other experience and typically creates a coaching program — either individually or in groups.
How to be a good mentor
The first step when entering a mentorship is to define what both parties expect from the exchange.
Have a frank conversation with your potential mentee or the mediator, if you’re working with a network, about what you can provide to your mentee and how you’re hoping to benefit from the relationship.
Suppose you’re working with an organization like Mentor or Women in STEM, for example. This type of organization will typically match you with potential mentees based on your profile and experience, as well as your expectations and availability.
Alternatively, a junior employee may contact you and request you mentor them. Regardless of how you meet them, it’s essential to devote some time to get to know your mentee, their needs and aspirations. An excellent place to start would be to understand their current objectives and whether they have a short-, mid-, and long-term plan for their life and career, as well as hear from them what they feel is their biggest obstacle in achieving these objectives.
Besides their professional aspirations, you’ll want to get to know your mentee on a personal level. After all, people are three-dimensional, and their background serves as the context for their career. So you’ll want to understand how their lived experiences shaped them into the person they are today and the impacts those experiences can have on their future.
Your role as a mentor
Now onto stepping into your mentor role. As a mentor, there are three essential elements you’ll want to develop.
First, you need to build rapport with your mentee. You’ll want to create a safe space for your mentee to speak openly and share their challenges, fears and aspirations with you. Only then will you be able to help them realize their potential.
Second, you need to practice empathy. Your mentee looks up to you in hopes that you’ll help them accomplish something similar to what you’ve built for yourself. So remember that you were once in their shoes — remember your fears, doubts, and difficulties as you walked this path.
Third, you need to serve as a guide. Offer constructive criticism, challenge your mentee to go beyond what they believe they’re capable of, and help them realize that there is a way to reach their objectives — because you’ve done it before.
Mentors empower and build their mentees UP
On a personal level, becoming a mentor can be a rewarding experience that solidifies your leadership, increases your confidence and gives others with fewer opportunities or who are further down the totem pole the knowledge they need to break through the barriers they face.
Beyond the personal gains, a mentor-mentee relationship benefits your organization because it opens the lines of communication that would otherwise remain closed. You get a better, more comprehensive understanding of the people in your team and can help them reach new heights.
Furthermore, mentoring junior employees, students, and recent grads can significantly impact the individual and your industry as a whole — inspiring, leading, and creating a clear path and guidance for younger generations.
Unfortunately, many times, for women and women of color, working with someone who looks like you, who shares your beliefs or someone with whom you can identify in any way, is the exception — not the norm. This is why if you come from a minority, I invite you to consider serving as a mentor for junior employees, students or others aspiring to reach the seat you hold.
Do you want to develop your professional skills as you prepare to mentor someone? Schedule a consultation now, and together, we will devise a plan to work on your areas of improvement so that you feel confident taking on this vital role.