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 the 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, and how to stand out at work. Their role may be more pronounced in professional settings, but we need mentors in 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 to lunch, is assigned to mentor you. You may also randomly come across people you enjoy working and learning from. These individuals could turn into your mentors if you foster your relationship with them.
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 and I shared weekly project updates with her for three months. I enjoyed working with her, so after our grant wrap up meeting, I asked her to let me know if there was anything else I could help with. This was a simple gesture, which then led to opportunities such as TA-ing multiple classes for her. Eventually, she became my go-to person for advice and also kindly wrote all my graduate school recommendation letters.
• I met Rena, who was two years older than me, through a student organisation. Initially we only met at social events and had an informal relationship until I reached out to her to receive advice on job interviews. Given how willing she was to make time for me, I kept going back to her with questions. 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 professional advice
There are many common threads between all three mentorship relationships – they are all based on trust, mutual give-and-take, and were built over time. While mentors are the ones providing guidance, the relationship should not be lop-sided. Each one of my mentors 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 with Rena before she became 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 leader’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 had enough mentees who valued them.
Another thing mentors want is to feel valued and not used. Many times, mentorship relationships can feel transactional if mentees only reach out when they need something. I’d encourage you to regularly 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). Make them feel more integrated in your life.
Mentors and Sponsors: An important distinction for people, especially women, to know is 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, my professor served as both a mentor and a sponsor since she wrote my recommendation letters. But my friend Rena is just a mentor since she does not have the power to make career altering decisions for me.
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 find things 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 your 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.