To professional women, the term “mentoring” can be as ubiquitous a buzzword as “networking.” We hear it all the time. Who doesn’t get e-mails about how important mentoring can be to your career? But what does it actually mean? If you occasionally get coffee with some director of communications, do you have a mentor? Are we all walking around like newborn baby birds asking, Are you my mentor?
Seeing as January is the fourth annual National Mentoring Month, now is a good time to figure it out. And who better to guide us than Katy Dickinson, the creator of several highly successful mentoring programs and vice president of MentorCloud?
1. What is mentoring? Better yet, what is good mentoring?
Dickinson says there are three ways to approach the concept of mentoring: sponsorship, coaching, and, well, mentoring.
A sponsor is someone who takes on a certain amount of responsibility for your professional success. Dickinson advises against assuming a mentor is a sponsor. A mentor is not in charge of your career; you are.
If you search “mentor” on YouTube, most of the hits are actually what Dickinson calls coaching, which focuses on building a particular skill. A coach might teach you about public speaking or accent reduction. Mentoring can involve aspects of sponsorship and coaching. But the main goal is to change how the mentee approaches personal and professional challenges by giving her a relationship with a seasoned professional.
Dickinson says the best way to get this relationship is through formal mentoring, in which a program connects mentors and mentees and guides the relationship within a defined structure. The relationship has start and end dates, which helps both parties feel comfortable about their commitment and the attached expectations. It also prevents any lopsided enthusiasm, since both people have voluntarily joined the program.
2. Why is mentoring successful?
It’s no secret that one of the best ways to learn something is by watching someone else do it first. That, in a nutshell, is how mentoring works. The mentor demonstrates how she processes and solves problems in ways the mentee hasn’t thought of. This works on a broader level as well. A mentee can gain the confidence to pursue particular goals because she’s already seen her mentor do it.
Mentoring is also successful because it helps shy people get answers, too. Many of us may not feel comfortable picking up the phone and bothering that communications director about getting coffee. But a mentoring relationship, especially one arranged through a networking service, doesn’t rely on you putting yourself out there for a higher-up’s rejection.
3. How do I choose a mentor?
Dickinson recommends asking yourself two questions: Whom do you admire? And who is walking ahead of you on your professional path?
Pick the right match for you, regardless of location. Dickinson’s research indicates that distance has no bearing on whether or not your mentoring relationship will work. Besides, technology is making it easier every day to communicate with people around the world. You can Facetime with your mentor in New York or New Delhi.
Shoot for the stars, seniority-wise. The higher you go, the more likely your mentor will have additional resources to help the relationship. Like an assistant who can arrange her schedule or a travel budget to come visit you. A gap in the totem pole may also help the mentor. Dickinson says that high-level executives often have staff who hide problems from them (as a nonexecutive, I’ll take her word on this). Through a mentoring relationship, the executive can stay in touch with things at the lower levels.
Lastly, don’t feel pressured to find a mentor who works in your exact industry. Just because your mentor isn’t in your field doesn’t mean she won’t know plenty of people who are. You can still ask for those introductions (one of the most valuable things you can get from a mentor). And you can definitely still learn soft skills like how to run meetings or gain the respect of higher-ups in your company.
BONUS: Five ways to be a good mentee
Your role as a mentee is very important. Here’s how to not mess it up:
- Do your homework. Come to meetings with your mentor prepared. Make sure you’ve done any readings she has assigned you. If your mentor makes a professional recommendation, do it — no matter how awkward it may seem.
- Ask questions. You want to learn how your mentor thinks and makes decisions — so ask her!
- Be respectfully persistent. Dickinson says relationships often fall apart because the mentee didn’t follow up. Don’t worry about hounding your mentor; you already have her permission to bug her.
- Be committed. Remember that research about how distance doesn’t necessarily hurt a mentoring relationship? Dickinson explains that because it can be harder to connect at a distance, the mentor and mentee are often inspired to work harder. The effort you put into this relationship will directly affect the results, so make the time needed for the relationship.
- Be patient. Often, the mentor learns more in the short term than the mentee will. During your meetings, the mentor may get a concrete understanding of the problems in the profession. The mentee, on the other hand, takes longer to process what she’s learning. Dickinson says it can take up to a few years for the mentee to fully understand the lessons learned from the relationship.
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