27 September 2023

Mentor as anything: Why mentoring matters, and how to get started

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Lizz Schumer* says professional mentorships used to be the workplace norm, but today they’re hard to find, even though they matter more than ever.

Photo: Mimi Thian

My first desk had an inert hand grenade in one corner and a notebook in another.

As a public relations assistant to Kathy Hochul, the local county clerk at the time, my job was to make the office (and by extension, Ms Hochul) look good.

The grenade reminded me that it took decisive confidence to do that well.

And the notebook contained advice on how to develop that.

Ms Hochul also taught me how to function in an office.

She coached me on how to make myself heard in a roomful of older, more experienced professionals.

She edited the materials I wrote for her, honing and sharpening my voice.

And when I left to take a job as a newspaper reporter, she championed my decision.

Mentoring makes a difference, especially for women

“I want the women that I mentor around me to see those possibilities, how they can make a difference when someday they’re in charge,” Ms Hochul, now New York’s Lieutenant Governor, said.

“I want them to have a more expansive view of their potential.”

“And to me, mentoring is all about letting them see and then helping them find the path to get there.”

While mentoring benefits all participants, it is especially important for young women.

A 2015 study from the University of California Haas School of Business found that women gained more social capital from affiliation with a high-status mentor than their male counterparts did.

Why mentoring works

Mentorship advances careers.

A study in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that people with mentors are more likely to get promotions.

That’s no accident.

Jenni Luke, chief executive of teen mentorship organisation StepUp, knows that those relationships can help propel young women to success.

When mid and senior-level employees choose to mentor someone newer to the workforce, they can boost people who may not otherwise have those opportunities and help level the playing field.

Many organisations are “hiring in these kinds of closed networks,” Ms Luke said.

“And unless you’re willing to really understand that and open up your networks, the network of folks coming into jobs continues to narrow.”

Mentorship also exposes both parties to new ideas and perspectives.

“The importance of being able to see things from different people’s points of view based on their life experience, their culture, their ethnicity, their gender, becomes even more important,” Ms Kaukus, Director for Career Services at the University at Buffalo said.

What mentoring does for the mentors

Ms Luke emphasised that mentoring should not be paternalistic.

“It’s very much reciprocal, and there’s so much to be learned from the younger generation,” she said.

Both sides are “meeting different types of people, understanding different experiences, and really growing their own network of young, up-and-coming professionals to be able to support or to be able to offer opportunities.”

Ms Kaukus, who also mentors international students, said she also learned a lot from those she mentors.

It affords mentors “an opportunity to reach back and continuously develop talent and pay back for the wonderful extension of mentorship that perhaps they were granted at some point in their career,” she said.

“That is a powerful motivator.”

“And it’s also a powerful benefit for the mentor.”

Don’t get stuck looking for mentors only at work

While formal mentorships used to be de rigueur in the business world, they have fallen by the wayside.

The solution: reimagining how employees find mentors, and how those relationships function.

Katherine Brodsky, a freelance journalist, started a private mentoring group to help people feel connected to others at all stages of their careers.

“Often, knowing how to get from Point A to Point B is mystifying, but when you see people who have succeeded in your field and get to learn about their journey, it takes the mystical element out of it,” she said.

In particular, seeking mentors outside your team at work can provide a “safe space” to ask questions you might not feel comfortable asking a manager or someone to whom you report directly.

What makes a mentorship effective?

While anyone can serve as a mentor, effective mentors cultivate some key traits.

“The mentors that our girls love the most are the ones that are great listeners, that see their potential and are willing to support them, come hell or high water,” Ms Luke said.

“If I’m not sharing with you the specific experiences that have helped shape my opinion on how to do things, then I’m not really helping you.”

Clarity and communication are also mutually important.

“You should also be clear with the mentor as to why you’re meeting them, and what you’re hoping to gain,” Ms Brodsky said.

Ms Kaukus recommended telling a potential mentor why you chose them in particular.

And Ms Luke emphasised that there was really no one “right” way to seek or engage in a mentoring relationship.

“As long as you’re willing to let the relationship evolve in the way that it can, based on everyone’s time constraints and the way that the communication works best for the two of you, I think there’s no one, right structure,” she said.

How to get started

If you’re looking to be a mentor or to be mentored, check in with your human resources department and look to professional organisations you may already belong to as a starting point.

Ms Kaukus also advised those who are part of a university or alumni network not to forget those connections.

For those looking to mentor others, Ms Hochul said not to discount your ability to mentor not only formally, but by leading by example.

If others “can look at how I overcame life’s challenges, and if that helps them get over those hurdles easier, then, to me, that is enormously satisfying,” she said.

“I’ve got to know that our time made a difference.”

* Lizz Schumer is a staff writer for the Hearst Lifestyle Group. She tweets at @Eschumer and her website is lizzschumer.com.

This article first appeared at www.nytimes.com.

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