Back in the 1970s, to help move women into roles and professions traditionally dominated by men, leading organizations created mentorship programs. The idea was to recruit men to serve not only as guides and advisors but also as champions for women entering ranks that once had been exclusively male.
Over the years, the concept of mentoring has joined the mainstream, but the definition of a “mentor” has changed somewhat. Today the word often refers to one who simply offers guidance and psychological support to a more junior professional colleague. So while mentors offer advice and sympathy, many do not take the extra step of speaking up and championing their mentees when decisions are being made about assignments and compensation.
In September 2010, a Harvard Business Review article inspired many to re-examine how well mentoring programs are working. Using data gathered by Catalyst, the authors concluded that women are more likely than men to have mentors. But men who do have mentors are more likely to benefit than are their female colleagues.
One reason for the difference is that men’s mentors tend to be more senior, and have more clout. And the higher ranking the mentor, the faster the career growth of the mentee.
But more important is that not all mentoring is created equal. There is a special kind of relationship, that the authors called “sponsorship,” which goes beyond advice and coaching. Sponsors, much like the champions envisioned in the early mentoring programs, actually lend their influence and serve as advocates for their mentees. They fight for their protégées and raise their visibility. And, the authors say, “women are overmentored and undersponsored relative to their male peers” and thus they are not advancing in their organizations.
Mentoring relationships can be valuable throughout your career, even when they don’t grow into sponsorship. To get the most from your relationships, consider these suggestions:
- Build real relationships. Mentoring is most effective when it involves a committed relationship between two people. And relationships tend to thrive when both parties make an effort and enjoy some benefit. If you are trying to forge a stronger bond with your mentor, ask yourself what’s in it for them. Can you, the mentee, make the relationship more reciprocal by serving as a source of information and support for your mentor?
- Practice sponsoring and mentoring. To learn how to create better mentoring relationships, look for opportunities to practice. Even if you are at the bottom of your hierarchy at work, you can find mentees through alumni and non-profit networks. As you find ways to make contributions to your mentees, you will get a better sense of how to manage upward and energize your mentors.
- Listen. Whether you are the mentor or mentee, you can foster the relationship by asking questions and genuinely listening to the answers.
- Seek and offer honesty. Sometimes a mentor’s most important contribution is to give constructive feedback. Ask your mentee if they want suggestions for improvement. And ask your mentor to suggest steps that will improve your chances for success. Don’t allow yourself to feel offended by feedback, even if it is hard to swallow, and resist the urge to respond defensively.
- To recruit mentors, request advice. All too often young professionals ask high-ranking colleagues to serve as mentors, are told “yes,” but then nothing happens. Sometimes it is more effective to gradually recruit mentors, building involvement as you learn to know each other. For example, you might approach a senior colleague and say, “I want to get better at X, and I notice that you are great at X, so I wonder if you could give me advice about this X type challenge?”
- To recruit sponsors, request action. Sometimes mentors would be happy to act more like sponsors, but they don’t know where to start or what to do. Make specific requests when you want them to speak up, do your homework about processes and procedures, and make it as easy as possible for them to fight your battles. And don’t ask for action if your mentor doesn’t have the right rank, access or knowledge.
- Meet regularly. Strong mentoring relationships are immensely valuable and can grow over the years into wonderful friendships. Find ways to meet regularly, even if there is no pressing need, and don’t allow nurturing relationships to fade away.
Want to explore more issues like this? Contact Bev about workshops or seminars for your group. Meanwhile, visit Bev’s website at www.ClearWaysConsulting.com. Check out brief book reviews, eZine archives and Bev’s blog. If you have questions or suggestions, email to Bev directly.
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