Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
Mentorship benefits all parties involved including the mentor, mentee and the organization itself. Indeed, several academic studies show benefits in greater career advancement, lower turnover and more investment in the organization. Mentorship can be particularly important for populations that are underrepresented in the workplace, including women.
A recent study conducted by The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania looked at Improving Workplace Culture through Evidenced Based Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Practices. Stephanie Creary, Nancy Rothbard and Jared Scruggs reviewed seven categories of DEI practices for quantifiable outcomes in DEI for organizations. Mentoring and Sponsorship was one of the seven categories and found to be among the “most influential practices in that they consistently drive many of the outcomes studied.”
As a woman leader, I have had mentors and mentees throughout much of my career. These relationships have helped me grow personally and professionally. I do not believe I would be where I am today as a female founder without the support of mentors along the way.
There are many helpful business relationships, so what makes mentors unique? Mentors are supporters of your career. They are typically long-term relationships and outlast any one position and frequently any one company. There are certainly other professional relationships that women benefit from. However, mentorship is special and worth the investment of time for the positive ROI it can have on one’s career.
Who makes a good mentor?
The question of who makes a good mentor is a very individual one. In general, mentors should have some level of seniority from where you are in your career. While this gap may change over the years, a mentor who will most successfully be able to help guide you in your career is one who has navigated a similar path previously.
Many times a mentor will be within the same organization. This type of mentoring can include some level of sponsorship of your internal career and promotional path. That being said, female entrepreneurs and executives may not benefit from a mentor who is internal to the company. In this instance, it is helpful to find a mentor in a similar industry or with a shared experience. For example, as I moved from Corporate America to establishing my own company, I formed a new mentor relationship with a fellow female entrepreneur who had established her company 15 years prior.
A good mentor will give you constructive criticism. While praise is nice to receive, it does not help you improve or grow professionally. Some of the most helpful feedback I have received have come from my mentors. One told me very early on that as a petite woman who looks younger than her age, it is doubly important to sit up straight and project my voice in meetings. While that prior sentence is ripe with references that might make an HR professional cringe, this was very helpful feedback to receive. Being more conscious of how I was physically presenting myself in meetings helped me to build my executive presence.
Many times when looking for a mentor, people seek someone of the same race and gender. However, many strong mentorships occur between people of different gender or race. Being able to try on another’s experience that is different from your own creates learning for both the mentor and mentee.
Interestingly, female leaders seem to be more convinced of the benefits of mentorship. According to a McKinsey & Company Women in the Workplace study, “Men in senior leadership outnumber women 2 to 1 — but employees are equally likely to say that women and men leaders have supported their career development.” Clearly women are stepping up more often to mentor and are likely realizing the strong benefits of doing so. What are some of these benefits? From a DEI perspective, when the mentee shares about her experiences this can offer a new lens to the mentor different than her own. In addition, when mentees share about their work and seek advice, this discussion helps the mentor stay abreast of current trends in their shared industry.
Related: The 6 Most Important Traits to Look for When Choosing a Mentor
Where do you find a mentor?
There are many programs to establish or request a mentor formally. Many large corporations will have formal mentorship programs. For female entrepreneurs, there are several organizations who will pair you with a mentor and frequently their services are free or low cost. Formal programs are most helpful if you are new to an organization or industry.
That being said, often informal mentorships that are built over time can be just as successful. When I started out in my career, I was always afraid to ask for advice. I didn’t want to bother people and I didn’t want to appear to not know something that I should know. Looking back, I realize that I missed out on the benefit of a mentor early in my career. I’ve learned over the years to not be afraid to ask for support. If someone doesn’t have the capacity to be a mentor, they will tell you. Otherwise, more often than not, they are glad to help and will also benefit from the relationship.
Related: How to Find the Right Mentor: Insights From an Immigrant Entrepreneur
How to make the most of time together
How do you best leverage your time with a mentor? First, talk about what you hope to gain from your time together. The mentor and mentee should share their backgrounds and career paths as well as career goals. This provides an opportunity to identify common experiences and areas of expertise that are unique.
Next, make a commitment to meet on a regular basis and establish a meeting cadence. Make the most of your time together by coming to the prepared meeting. It is usually the responsibility of the mentee to come with a topic that you want feedback on or a problem you are struggling with. You can also discuss articles or books that are relevant to your industry. Not every session has to have a set agenda, but you want to make sure it doesn’t just become a social connection. Your goal with your mentorship should be to learn from each other and for career development for the mentee.
Pulling it all together
Successful mentoring creates positive impacts for the individuals and the organization. Find a mentor who can help with your career today and in the future. Investing the time needed to make the most of the relationship is well worth it. For female leaders, these relationships can help lift you out of career valleys and cheer you on at career peaks.
Related: 3 Core Principles That I Think Everyone Should Seek in a Boss or Mentor