This article first appeared at For Working Ladies.
There’s no end to the praise for mentoring – both as a mentor and as a mentee. Mentoring has been described as the key to gender equality in the workplace, a tool for reducing the achievement gap between children of different backgrounds, and has even been said to improve employee mental health.
When planned effectively and with clear parameters, mentoring can be a mutually beneficial partnership that helps foster employee satisfaction and wellbeing, and can help ensure the most motivated people fulfil their professional potential. For entrepreneurs, having a mentor can be even more beneficial, especially for women and minority entrepreneurs who are severely underrepresented in the startup world.
Over the past fifty years, countless studies have been conducted into the benefits of having and being a mentor. According to Harvard Business Review’s 1979 study, when the idea of mentoring was beginning to enter public consciousness, people who have had mentors in a corporate environment both earn more money at a younger age, and are happier with their career progression than their peers.
Some of the most successful business people of our time have spoken publicly about their positive experiences with mentorship, further convincing us of its importance.
Sheryl Sandberg often speaks about Larry Summers and how his championing of her professional journey led to her massive success. Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, boasts Hillary Clinton as her mentor, and credits her for providing encouragement from the top. Even if your mentor doesn’t happen to be so high profile, you still reap major returns – especially if you’re female. According to a study conducted by the University of California Business School in 2015, women gain more social capital through having a mentor than their male peers.
Juliet Howe is at the start of her career working as an Operational Excellence Analyst at a financial services firm in London – typically a male dominated environment. Juliet describes her mentor as “kind of like having a work therapist.” Participating in a mentorship scheme has helped Juliet navigate the first year of her professional career, a time that could otherwise be overwhelming and nerve-wracking, given the jump from student life to a full-on job in banking. “Often early in your career, your judgement can get clouded by emotion as you can take things very personally. My mentor helps me see the big picture,” she explains. And it’s not just handy for getting guidance on specific situations – “my mentor helps with general career advice – I can talk to him about anything,” says Juliet.
“Often early in your career, your judgement can get clouded by emotion as you can take things very personally. My mentor helps me see the big picture”
Cathy Sorbara PhD is a neuroscientist and former COO of Cheeky Scientist who fully believes in the power of mentoring. “Finding a career, transitioning to a different career or advancing in your career is plagued with frustration and demotivation. You face constant rejection, that sinking feeling that you’re not good enough, and you will never find where you ‘fit’,” she says. Cathy has experienced the benefits of having a mentor firsthand, and credits them for helping her feel less alone in her professional journey. “They had been in my shoes and successfully navigated this path before,” she points out.
Now that Cathy has achieved considerable professional success of her own, she’s focusing her energy on giving back through becoming a mentor herself. “Mentorship should be a positive feedback loop. When you have gained value from a mentor, you should be a mentor to others. It’s fulfilling and kind – and there is not enough kindness being passed around,” says Cathy.
“Finding a career, transitioning to a different career or advancing in your career is plagued with frustration and demotivation. You face constant rejection, that sinking feeling that you’re not good enough, and you will never find where you ‘fit’”
With all these benefits, it’s unsurprising that 71% of Fortune 500 companies now offer some kind of mentoring schemes to their employees. But while more than 75% of professionals want a mentor, only 37% actually participate in some form of mentorship scheme. This can partly be explained by the fact that it can be intimidating to approach a senior acquaintance and ask for mentoring. It can be a big pull on their time, and you might fear your request being rejected.
So what’s the best way to approach finding and building a relationship with a mentor?
First off, consider your wider network of people you might know from school, university, friends, and any jobs you’ve had. Maybe there was a professor who particularly inspired you, or there’s a senior member of staff at your company who you’ve always admired from afar. If you don’t know anyone who’d be a good fit to mentor you, check out Bumble Bizz, the business vertical of the popular dating app. You can create a professional profile complete with your education and work experience, and a short bio describing what you’re looking for. Swipe through the other business profiles and start some conversations – even if you don’t find a mentor, you’ll make some new professional connections.
Once you’ve identified a few possible mentors you’d like to approach, think carefully about what you’re asking from them. These people are likely to be extremely busy and might already have one or more mentees, so don’t be too dejected if they decline. Try and set up an introductory coffee with your chosen possible mentor, and talk them through what you’d like to get out of the experience, what you’ll commit to time-wise, and most importantly, the benefits for the mentor themselves. You’re asking for a busy and successful professional to give you some of their precious time, so make sure you follow some basic guidelines. Always be on time for your meetings, and turn up prepared to ask some specific questions, so you can maximise the value of the meeting and ensure you don’t waste your mentor’s time.
Mentorship can be a fulfilling and enriching experience for everyone involved, and a great way to build your network and connections as a young employee or entrepreneur, but remember that your reputation is on the line, so always show up as your best self!