Careers today are complex and fast-paced. All of us are continually faced with steep learning curves as we navigate new jobs, new technology, and new global challenges. Beyond this, women must overcome gender stereotypes and negotiate having children during peak career development stages. Great mentors have never been more critical.
In the past, true mentors provided holistic support to their protégés—including instrumental career support, emotional support, and role modeling. Mentors served as sponsors and coaches, protected their protégés politically, and helped them get challenging assignments. All of this is important, but it’s too much for one person to do in today’s demanding workplace.
Reframe the way you think about mentoring and help your protégé do the same. You can and should play an essential part of your protégé’s development, but to succeed she will need a network of mentors, sponsors, coaches, and peers. Instead of helping, you will hurt your protégé if you lead her to believe that you are the only mentor she will need. Explain to her that building relationships is essential for good performance and for getting ahead in the workplace. And the more developmental support she gets the better.
Here are 7 ways to be a great mentor for women:
1. Empower her to lead the conversation.
The best skill you can teach is how to be a good protégé, and a good protégé will take the lead in the relationship. Taking the initiative empowers your protégé to develop leadership skills and take ownership of her career, essential for her long-term success. Thus, as a mentor your role is not to direct the relationship instead your role is to guide your protégé by asking good questions and helping her think through career issues. Discuss goals for the relationship at the outset and be explicit about why you are pushing her to take the lead.
2. Become a sponsor and help her connect with other sponsors.
If you are in a position of influence, think about how to raise your protégé’s visibility. Expose her to the complexities of your role and introduce her to other leaders in positions of power. Raise her name as a high potential candidate for promotion in both formal and informal conversations. It’s notable that women are more willing to ask their managers for stretch assignments with a sponsor behind them.
3. Encourage her to take on challenging assignments.
Succeeding on challenging tasks is how we build self-confidence and self-efficacy, critical for performing in executive roles. Get to know your protégé well enough to help her identify experiences that will grow her skill set. Such high profile projects also serve to build her network, improve her reputation, and prepare her for more responsibility. Help her reflect on these experiences to fully capture the learning and incorporate new skills into her role.
4. Acknowledge gender issues exist.
Your protégé knows that gender may be a factor in her career; it has been a big part of the mainstream media conversation since the publication of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. The issue is to recognize the role of gender and consider how it may or may not impact opportunities at your workplace. A key benefit of women mentoring women is the potential comfort in shared experiences. Be open to this conversation. Ask your protégé if/how gender has influenced her career. As appropriate, share your own experiences and how you coped as examples of resiliency. Help her navigate challenges using your knowledge of the people, processes, and culture of your particular organization.
5. Coach on executive presence.
Appearing and sounding professional are important components of impression management. You can help your protégé understand the unwritten rules, those implicit assumptions that underlie behavioral expectations and what is considered suitable for executives in your workplace. Observations on the wardrobes of high profile women are rampant, and good public speaking skills are crucial for aspiring leaders. Give thoughtful feedback on appropriate attire and presentation style to help women put their best foot forward.
6. Help her identify role models.
With women comprising less than 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs, clearly it is a challenge to identify female role models. Try having your protégé think about what she admires about different executives she’s observed. Consider what her goals are and who you know has strengths in areas she needs to develop. Instead of searching for one perfect role model, people can serve as role models for specific skillsets or managerial styles. Building relationships with both male and female mentors will be essential for her success.
7. Urge her to develop mentoring relationships outside your organization.
Everyone needs an objective sounding board outside of their workplace. Encourage your protégé to discuss her career with people from different companies and from different parts of her life (e.g., industry groups, community). External mentors give perspective and can offer fresh approaches to obstacles because they are not embedded in the organization. Women benefit particularly when they connect with mentors who support their goals both inside and outside of work.
To be a great mentor today requires creativity and the flexibility to adapt your approach to your protégé’s needs. In the process, great mentors learn a lot too.
About the author:
Wendy Marcinkus Murphy is an Associate Professor of Management at Babson College and author of Strategic Relationships at Work: Creating Your Circle of Mentors, Sponsors, and Peers for Success in Business and Life.
by Wendy Marcinkus Murphy