6 Things All Outstanding Women Mentors Do

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MentorAll women mentors want to take their responsibility seriously. But what does that mean? Being a woman mentor is not like being a manager. There is no judgment or assessment of the young professional’s performance in a mentor-mentee relationship, freeing you to deploy skills that differ from your usual management approaches. There are some simple things that you can do to make your time with your mentee valuable and rewarding to both of you.

Here is a checklist for women mentors:

1. Meet regularly with your mentee.

Whether your mentoring program is informal or formal, it is important to meet regularly with your mentee. Once a month is preferable, and it’s important that you take this commitment extremely seriously. Put yourself in her shoes; wouldn’t you feel disappointed, disrespected and disillusioned if your mentor constantly blew off or rescheduled your appointments? The important thing for you to ask yourself: Do I have the time and the internal commitment to invest in this young woman? Be honest. If you don’t have the time, bow out gracefully.

On the other hand, it may not be wise to chase your mentee or over-function in your role as mentor. You are not her mother! I had a mentee who, after a while, failed to return calls or emails from me. I sent 2 or 3 emails to reach out to her and then gave up, realizing that this mentor relationship wasn’t that important to her, so why should it be to me.

2. Women mentors need to believe in their mentee.

Sometimes the biggest obstacle to success, especially for a woman, is a lack of outside validation she gets, especially if the young woman did not receive any as a young child. Believe in the potential of your mentee, and tell her often that you can see her doing amazing things. Be specific in your praise of her, mentioning her best virtues and your confidence that she can use them to positive results. Hold her in high esteem and respect. One of the most powerful messages that a mentor once gave me was when she said, “I believe in you and the amazing things you can do. I wonder when you will believe in yourself?” I needed her confidence in me to build my own self-confidence.

3. Listen deeply.

It’s been said that we have two ears and only one mouth; therefore, we should use them in that same proportion. Nowhere else is that more powerful than in a mentor relationship. Let your mentee talk twice as much as you do. Let her think out loud; don’t interrupt her. Set your ego aside and put the spotlight on your mentee – this hour is all about her, not about you. You have nothing to prove in this conversation (after all, you are the mentor, which connotes inherent respect), so be gracious in your ability to let her vent.

Since we are all busy, women mentors need to take heed and prepare for deep listening by eliminating all distractions: turn off your cell phone, turn off your email notifications, tell your administrative assistant to hold all calls, and physically turn away from your computer. Some good ways to focus on what your mentee is saying is to mentally visualize what she is talking about, or repeat to yourself what she is saying. Think of your attention as a gift to her.

4. Ask powerful questions.

How often do you like being told what to do?  Honestly, there are times when we just want a straight answer, but most often, we want to figure it out ourselves. As a powerful mentor, the biggest impact you can make is to inspire your mentee to come up with solutions and approaches herself. As Dorothy Leeds observed, “The only way you help someone accept an idea as {her} own is to ask {her} a question and let {her} give the answer back to you.”[1]

Asking powerful questions is the way to do this. Powerful questions share these characteristics:

  • Women mentors should ask open-ended, not closed ended, questions. An open-ended question begins with the words “what, when, where, who” and invite an explanation. Closed-ended questions illicit a short, binary answer, such as yes or no, black or white, sometimes or never.
  • The best powerful questions are those to which you don’t already know the answer. “What is the most common performance assessment rating?” is not an optimal question if you work at the company as a manager – you already know the answer. That kind of leading question can be experienced as a manipulative; it might backfire on you. The mentee could respond, “You know that better than I do – what is it?” A better question is, “How do you see your best self responding to this performance rating?”
  • When you don’t know what to say, turn to wonder. You might say, “I wonder what your boss is thinking?” Or, “I wonder what would happen if you talked to your boss about this?” This is a great way of opening up the conversation. And, because you don’t know the answer to the question, it is a powerful one.

5. Hold her accountable.

The best mentors follow-up on the action items that the mentee agreed to in their last meeting. At the end of a session, you might ask, “What 2 or 3 action items are you taking away from our meeting?” As the mentor, I type her ideas into the notes field of the calendar entry for our next meeting, and send the mentee an invitation to the session. That way, both the mentee and I have the list at our fingertips, making it easy for me to ask at the next meeting, “How did it go with the 3 ideas you wanted to try from our last call?”

And, what happens if the mentee didn’t try any of the ideas she agreed to? Remember, you are not her manager, so instead of being disappointed, get curious. Ask a question like, “What held you back from getting to these ideas?” I would be concerned that she agreed to try ideas that she had no true commitment to, just because I suggested them. Or, it might be that she found another way to solve the same issue. If you maintain your high regard for her, you will be open to hearing her explanation and help her move forward from there.

6. Be a sponsor.

Because you hold your mentee in high esteem and believe in her potential, you will be on the lookout for ways to introduce her to new opportunities. This is the difference between a passive mentor and an active sponsor – the sponsor will act as a talent agent for the mentee, finding new projects or positions for the young woman and recommending her for them. Sponsorship is more powerful than simple mentorship because of the active nature of it. Some industry pundits believe that sponsorship is an important way to help women break through the glass ceiling, although I believe there are systemic changes that call out for change before women can achieve parity with their male counterparts but women mentors can play a part.

Mentoring a younger woman is an admirable and rewarding project. Because of your success and achievements, you can expect to be asked to be a mentor. Follow these guidelines and you’ll be an outstanding woman mentor.

[1] Dorothy Leeds, Smart Questions: The Essential Strategy for Successful Managers (New York: Berkley Books, 1987).


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