Maximizing Mentor Relationships

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A serious mentorship movement for women is afoot in America. Women today can find professional support from a wealth of resources including online mentorship communities like Levo League, women empowerment organizations like the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago, inspirational self-help books like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, and a wide variety of career advancement programs offered by employers, religious organizations, educational institutions and other groups and experts.

Even world renowned businessman and philanthropist Warren Buffett recently stepped into the role of online career mentor and set up Office Hours to share his personal insights on professional advancement and career lessons learned for working women. A key to success, Mr. Buffett advises women to find the right leader to follow.

A well-matched mentor/mentee relationship can be invaluable to career development. Some mentor relationships develop organically, but it’s also okay to be strategic and take the lead. If you’re looking to identify the right leader to follow or to strengthen existing connections, here are a few thoughts on developing a meaningful and long-standing mentor relationship.

Initiate It

Although Ms. Sandberg warns against chasing or forcing a connection, Mollie O’Brien, a Chicago attorney and former tutor for the University of Chicago North Kenwood Oakland Charter School, recommends a more proactive approach. Rather than wait to be noticed by potential mentors, Ms. O’Brien sought out more senior women and men in her professional circles. She says, “I really worked to surround myself with interesting, thoughtful and inspiring people.” For her, a mentee’s ability to network and take the initiative in connecting with a potential mentor demonstrates leadership qualities and an eagerness to be successful.

Dr. Geneace Williams, president, OLW Communications, Inc. (a leadership strategy and consulting firm in Burr Ridge) and author of Leadership DASH: Breaking Through the Finish Line, agrees and suggests that the most effective first step to finding a mentor “is to seek guidance from someone you know and respect.” She adds, pragmatically, “The world is not really all that big, and that person may be able to refer you to a mentor who would be just the right fit.”

Nurture It

Dr. Williams believes the mentor-mentee relationship is one of mutual benefit. The mentee gains insight and guidance from someone more experienced, and the mentor gets positive feelings and recognition for championing emerging leaders. In Dr. Williams’ view “both individuals stand to gain from the relationship because the teaching and learning that goes on in mentoring offers growth opportunities for both.”

Like any other relationship, a mentor-mentee relationship takes time and nurturing to grow into something worthwhile. It is the mentee’s job, at least initially, to keep the relationship moving forward by engaging the mentor and showing enthusiasm in his or her work and other interests.

Dr. Williams underscores the importance of shared experiences. She says, “seek out someone who has ‘been there and done that,’ meaning someone with relevant experience who can serve as an advisor, confidant, and often a sounding board to address some of the complexities of professional and even personal life.”

Shared experiences does not necessarily mean shared gender, although Dr. Williams admits that “there are unique aspects to our professional journey and having another woman to connect with around those issues, I believe, is a tremendous benefit.” That said, O’Brien encourages women not to be hesitant to form mentoring relationships with men. “In my opinion,” O’Brien offers, “men network and seek mentoring from successful women without a second thought. Instead of focusing on gender, women should build relationships with those possessing qualities they aspire to possess in their own lives.”

Respect It

It is critical to respect the dynamic of the relationship. Dr. Williams warns that a mentor should never feel exploited. She says, “A mentee should respect her mentor’s time as well as the experience she offers.” That means know the right amount of contact. You don’t want to be a pest, but you also don’t want to be forgotten. Moreover, don’t overreach or make unreasonable requests. For example, it is not a mentor’s role to secure jobs and other career advancements for a mentee. On the other hand, it is not likely to be viewed as imposing for a mentee to ask a mentor for an introduction or a connection. Another key part of respecting the relationship means following through on every opportunity a mentor presents to you and, of course, reporting back on outcomes. Finally, always express thanks for a mentor’s efforts in support of you.

Repay It

Serving as a mentor actually makes you a better mentee. Experiencing the relationship from the other side gives you a greater appreciation for the mentor role and shows you what to do and, more importantly, what not to do as a mentee.

It is also an integral part of a person’s professional goodwill. According to Dr. Williams, “Mentoring others is a natural part of leadership and an important form of paying it forward.” She believes mentoring women, in particular, is necessary to sustain a pipeline of capable women in the workforce. In her experience, “So often there are not enough prepared women to fill leadership vacancies, which begs the question, what have we done proactively to help prepare other women to move up and forward in their careers?”

Ms. O’Brien adds that it is never too early to serve as a mentor to others. “No matter where you are in your career,” she says, “forming mentoring relationships is essential to the professional development of both the mentor as well as to the mentee.”

The bottom line is that mentorship opportunities and resources are available for women now more than ever before. Make and take these opportunities to improve your own professional experience as well as to improve opportunities and experiences for other women in the workforce.

Lauren Blair

About Lauren Blair

Lauren Blair is a partner at Pedersen & Houpt. A member of the firm's Litigation and Dispute Resolution Practice Group, Ms. Blair focuses her litigation practice in the areas of commercial, family law, employment law, and state environmental law. In every area of her practice, she thrives on working closely with clients to develop sound end-game strategies and is tenacious about delivering desired results. As a member of the firm's Labor and Employment Law Practice Group, Ms. Blair also counsels large and small corporate clients on employment law compliance, including on-site training for supervisors and non-supervisory employees and drafting/auditing employment policies, practices and handbooks. She also protects and defends employers against federal, state and local employment discrimination claims, and she's president of Goodman Theatre's Scenemakers Board, a group of young, diverse professionals whose mission is to support the Goodman in audience development, fundraising and membership. Her blog titled “Working It” offers a lawyer’s perspective on issues, trends and hot topics in the business community.