What Does it Really Mean to Mentor?

With one of my mentees, author and entrepreneur Courtney Martin. Listen to our  StoryCorps conversation .

With one of my mentees, author and entrepreneur Courtney Martin. Listen to our StoryCorps conversation.

I’m quite sure I never heard the word “mentor,” growing up in the fifties in small town Georgia, but luckily, I had one, and she changed the direction of my life.

From the moment I was first introduced to Mrs. Shirley Reid as my 8th grade English teacher, I thought, “That is who I want to be.”

Now, that’s not always the best reason for choosing a mentor choosing someone you want to replicate but it’s why I chose Mrs. Reid. I wanted to walk like her, talk like her, dress like her, and command a room like she did. I wanted to know everything she knew.

Clearly, my expectations were high! Happily for me, she saw my potential, not to become another her, but to become the person I was meant to be. In the years that followed, as our mentor/mentee relationship developed and deepened, she reminded me often that her job was to help me find my own path, not to duplicate hers.

Over the course of my career, I’ve been fortunate enough to have a number of mentors, including a few enlightened men who came into my life at critical times with important advice and guidance. And I've taken my responsibility to mentor other women (and a few men) quite seriously.  

In fact, as I tell the organizations with which I consult on the role of women in business, I believe mentoring is one of the strategies that can close the gender gap in leadership that exists in this country and around the world. Mentoring can help more women reach the top of their professions and gain access to capital and economic opportunities they would otherwise miss.

With so much at stake, let me share a few things I’ve learned from a lifetime of being both a mentor and a mentee:

  1. Being a mentor takes time. Make the best use of this time by setting and maintaining clear boundaries and expectations. For example, specify when and how often you are available to meet with your mentee, and your preferred way of connecting (phone, email, in person). Clarify that you see your role not as giving wide-ranging life advice, but offering guidance on specific professional issues.
  2.  Being a mentor is about suggesting, not instructing. Resist the urge to provide directional advice, which can lead a mentee to unanticipated consequences.
  3. Being a mentor is about asking smart questions, not having all the answers. You will help your mentee more by listening closely and asking questions than by having the answer for everything.
  4. Not all mentorship ends with a sense of satisfaction for the mentor or the mentee. Sometimes, these relationships end in frustration. It’s important to remember that mentees are not your children and mentors are not therapists (see #1 above).
  5. On the other hand, being a mentor can result in lifelong relationships that continue to nurture and empower both mentee and mentor. Case in point: One of the young women I mentor is author and entrepreneur Courtney Martin, with whom I recently led a discussion on inclusive leadership at the Makers Conference. It is not uncommon for mentors and mentees to become collaborators! Another example: My former mentee, Carolina Escobar, organizes the Women Working for the World conference in Bogota, Colombia, that I’m traveling to this week more on that in an upcoming post and on social media.

I'm often asked how to find a good mentor, and the good news is that many organizations now offer mentoring opportunities (too many to list here). And, as you consider becoming a mentor or seeking one, please remember that mentors are not defined by their gender or even by their position, but by their willingness to give time and share experiences and expectations. 

I believe more deeply every day that the world needs more women leading, and I believe our single biggest opportunity to increase that pipeline to leadership is by women helping women women working for the world, and for each other. 

Who can you begin mentoring? 

Courtney Martin, whom I mention above, was inspired by this post to dedicate her weekly On Being column to reflecting on the art of being mentored