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14-06-2022

Under the wing: how mentoring can advance your career

Written by: Maryia Khomich

You are never too experienced or too successful to benefit from career mentoring. The right mentor can provide advice, support, networks, and opportunities that help their mentee climb the career ladder faster – something that would be impossible to achieve alone.

Hanneke Takkenberg, Executive Director of the Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations (ECWO) and Professor of Management Education focusing on Women in Business at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), explains the value of career mentoring and advises on how to get the most out of a mentor-mentee relationship.

What is career mentoring?
In a nutshell, career mentoring is about a long-term perspective on how you want to build your career and how you manage your career in relation to your life. A mentor – usually a little bit more senior – shares their personal experiences, insights, and knowledge with the mentee. Mentoring is a trusted, private, or public relationship focused on overall development and should not be confused with coaching which is a short-term and structured training of a specific skill.
Mentoring is a spectrum of different degrees of support: from a classic mentoring relationship (providing personal advice and support privately) to a classic sponsorship relationship (publicly advocating for an individual). And in between, there is a range of helping roles, such as strategizing somebody, providing connections, and giving people the opportunities to be visible. A degree of support will depend on the mentee, the needs of the mentee, and the stage of the career that they are in. It is important that the mentee initiates the relationship and takes the responsibility for maintaining and ending the relationship with the mentor.

How does mentoring women impact their careers?
When we look at mentoring from a broader spectrum and gender aspect, women are usually mentored in a classic way: being provided with advice and support and helped to get rid of their “deficits” – gaps in their CV and missing skills – to make a next career move. In contrast, men are more sponsored than they are being mentored, largely focusing on how to get them quickly to the next career stage. That is a big difference, and mentoring may even be a disadvantage to women. Therefore, if you get into a mentor-mentee relationship, it is so important to state your needs as a mentee. And it is not only about how to manage your career, but also about how to get access to influential people, how to become more visible, and how the mentor can help the mentee towards a promotion.
Women are often in a minority in most fields, less likely to be included in informal networks in the organization, and therefore tend to pull each other down. But women as a group can truly make a change by advocating to support each other, connecting and amplifying each other, and sharing experiences thus creating a feeling of empowerment and companionship.

How to ask someone to be a mentor?
If it is informal mentoring, define your needs, e.g., strategy building, networking, or opportunities, and match your mentor to the needs that you have. Then ask your colleagues who could be a good mentor for you; people know good mentors from the informal – and often very exclusive – networks in the organization. If your need is career advancement, choose a mentor in a higher position in the organization, but with whom you are not hierarchically connected, someone who understands the organization, and its formal and informal networks. You can go directly to a mentor, but it helps to be introduced to a mentor by another person from your surroundings.
Mentoring someone is a win-win situation: it is very rewarding and positive, and it is often a part of a leadership position for a mentor. Through mentoring, you can better understand the organization and easily identify the people you can engage with or the ones you should avoid.

How to prepare yourself for the first mentoring conversation?
The number of meetings in formal mentoring programs (1-2 years long) is usually set up beforehand, whereas in informal mentoring a mentee and a mentor should agree on the trajectory that they envision already at the first meeting. As a mentee, be very clear about the expectations of mentoring to feel free within the boundaries that you set. Sometimes a mentor might not know how to handle a situation and should also set the boundaries when it comes to personal aspects.

What are the challenges and benefits of being a mentor?
Mentoring is a win-win situation if you are carefully matched with your mentee. And you should not have too many mentees. It takes time to build a relationship and invest your time in other people, but at the same time, it is a nice interruption of your daily activities and the ability to critically reflect on your own practice. However, we are so focused on the “here and now” that sometimes it is hard to make the time for activities that seem to be very time-consuming and unworthy, but mentoring can pay back in a long term. It is like dropping a pebble into the water because mentoring creates a positive ripple.
If you cannot help your mentee, refer them to someone who can help them with their needs. What I do find difficult is that people are starting too late in finding a mentor and are basically burnt out. And in such situations, you do not succeed in helping them advance their career, but you do succeed in helping them find some sort of peace with where they are and make them feel happy, content, and proud of what they do.

What are the common mistakes mentors make?
A mentor is somebody who gives advice, supports, guides, connects, facilitates, and helps to strategize a person, but the responsibility is always with the mentee. Even though a mentor-mentee relationship is very personal and trusted, the mentee can ignore the mentor’s advice. And things can go wrong when the mentor starts coaching and taking responsibility for the mentee.

How and when can you start supporting and mentoring others?
You can start mentoring others as early as possible. You can be a mentor and a mentee at the same time because the informal networks that you build in your organization are both top-down and bottom-up. Ambitious people want to be helped but they also want to advance to a leadership position.
As a mentor, you can lead by example and empower others, care for the people around you and the ones who are dependent on you in the same way you want to be cared for. That is where it starts. People should feel inspired and supported because you want everybody to get equal opportunities to advance and develop their talents. Even if they leave the organization and move to industry or start their own company, you should continue mentoring them in a realization that it is not the only way up.
Being a mentor is also a way to change the organization for the better. It is not only about you as an individual but also you as a future leader and an agent of change, someone who makes the organization healthier, more diverse, and more inclusive. And it allows people to be themselves and adds value to the team they are working in.

Interested to learn more about mentoring?
Professor Takkenberg will be giving a deep dive session about mentoring in the programme of the upcoming edition of TOPX Summit on 23 September in Oss, the Netherlands. For more information about this summit and the programme, see https://www.hyphenprojects.nl/topx/topx-summit.

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