When I look back at all the panels I have attended and books I have read on career progression, a key theme that pops up is the importance of role mentors play in our lives. Mentors are individuals who share their knowledge and provide guidance. They are often a sounding board for key decisions such as which student organisation to join, what job to apply for, how to stand out at work. Their role may be more pronounced in a work setting but, we need mentors for all aspects of our lives – school, work, relationships. Different people can play the role of a mentor based on the area we’re seeking help in and stage of life we are at.
There are many ways to find individuals who will be willing to mentor us, but we need to be deliberate about fostering these relationships, especially when we hope to be on the receiving end of someone’s time. The easiest way to meet a potential mentor is through a formal mentorship program, in which individuals are paired with one another to form a mentor-mentee relationship. These programs may also be less pronounced; the person who onboards you into your first job, from showing you the photocopy room to taking you for lunch, is assigned to mentor you as you ease into the job. You may come across people you enjoy working and spending time with. As you foster the relationships, those individuals could turn into your mentors.
How I met my mentors: When I look back at how I met three key mentors in my life, all encounters were different.
• One of my professors, Deborah Streeter, interviewed me for a grant in University. Luckily, I was selected and over the summer, I used to send her monthly updates as part of the grant mandate. I valued her advice and enjoyed working with her so after our wrap up meeting, I asked her to let me know if there was anything I could help with. This was a simple gesture, which then led to opportunities such as TA-ing multiple classes for her. Eventually, she was my go-to person for advice and she kindly wrote all my graduate school recommendation letters.
• I met Rena who was two years older than me through a student organisation. We always met at social events and had an informal relationship. I reached out to her to receive advice on job interviews, and given how willing to make time for me, I kept going back to her with questions. She also let me stay at her apartment when I had to travel to New York for job interviews. On my end, I used to volunteer to help her organise work related events on campus.
• My third month in consulting, I was staffed on a difficult project and my manager was struggling to scope the work for us. I did not know much about the content, but I still stayed back after hours to help her with tiny tasks that made her life easy. Eventually, we had a great working relationship and even after our project ended, I always called her for advice about which project to sign-up for or which graduate school I should apply to.
There are many common threads between all three mentorship relationships – they are all based on trust, mutual give-and-take, and time. While mentors are the ones providing guidance, the relationship should not be lop-sided. Each one of them knew they could rely on me for help as much as I could on them. These relationships also take time to develop. It took me a whole year of working with my professor before I was comfortable asking her for a recommendation letter and it took two years of friendship before Rena turned into someone who would provide unfiltered advice to me.
What do mentors want: It is important to know that mentees can add a lot of value in a mentor’s life! Apart from the gratification of seeing someone you helped succeed, having a strong followership is key for a mentor’s reputation. In my previous job, one of the criteria for deciding whether to promote someone, was to look at their followership and how juniors ranked them – or in other words, whether they have enough mentees who value them. If people respect you, they will go above and beyond to help you succeed.
Another thing mentors want is to feel valued and not used. Many times, mentorship relationships can feel transactional if mentees only reach out if they need something. I’d encourage you to check in on your mentors; they’re human too. Send them a simple message on holidays, share good news (about a promotion or a vacation you took). That way they will feel more integrated with your life.
Mentors and Sponsors: An important distinction for people, especially women, to know is about the difference between a mentor and a sponsor. Sponsors are the individuals who have the power to make career changing decisions for you. Our mentors are not always our sponsors. In my case, while my professor, Deborah, also served as a sponsor since she wrote my recommendation letters, Rena is just a mentor since she does not have the power to do so.
Women often fall back at work because while we have enough mentors, we do not have sponsors. This is because the big bosses who make decisions about promotions are often men. It is easier for our male counterparts to forge relationships with senior executives who are men since they’ll have shared experiences to talk about. In investment banking, I saw men bonding over basketball and golf, while I struggled to talk to my bosses about. I had to go out of my way to deliberately schedule time for coffee chats to make sure that I was engaging with my sponsors.
Build your personal board of directors: As you think about finding the right mentors and sponsors, I advise you to take some time to build a personal board of advisors for yourself. If you are the CEO of my life, who are the key people you go to for advice? Below is an overview of my board – I try to have a mix of people who know me personally and professionally. Also, this board does not have to be static and can change depending on the stage of life you’re in.