The obstacles that hinder progression for women, LGBT+ individuals, and people of color in organizations are often structural and rooted in unconscious bias. As individuals, we tend to be instinctively drawn to people that we share similarities with, such as race, gender, upbringing, culture, and religion. As a result, we become more likely to advocate for those individuals through mentoring. This creates an often unintentionally narrow-minded approach to informally cultivating talent, which can be detrimental to successful leadership inclusion. White male leadership repeats itself while diverse talent is disproportionately kept out of senior management and the C-Suite.
If you’ve had support in your career that enabled you to progress, how can you pay this forward to others in a way that creates equity in opportunity?
How should you pay it forward?
Personal relationships and networks are very important for career advancement. These become even more important as employees progress to more senior roles, and this is where mentors come in; they are imperative to advocate for individuals based on direct knowledge of their accomplishments.
Mentorship is a long-term relationship built on supporting the growth and development of the mentee. Mentors are a foundation of wisdom, teaching, and support. Mentoring can be very powerful, especially through one-on-one support for short time periods, provided either by someone within the employee’s own team or from elsewhere in the organization.
Mentors support mentees through formal or informal discussions about how to build skills, qualities, and confidence for career progression. They offer insight on how to increase visibility and give mentees suggestions on how to expand their network.
How to be an effective mentor
Mentorship is usually confused with coaching or sponsorships; coaching works closely with a mentee or drives them on specific performance goals. Sponsorship advocates for a protégé and connects them to opportunities.
A mentor supports a mentee on their wider developmental goals, whether it is their career goals or personal skill development goals. Most importantly, a mentor is there to help guide a mentee through that journey instead of teaching those skills.
To be a mentor you don’t need to have specific skills to teach. You only need lived experiences and be willing to listen and share those experiences with someone who may find them useful.
According to Mentorloop, some of the qualities that good mentors possess are:
They share experiences, rather than advice
When addressing problems or challenges there is a big difference between relating your experience and providing advice.
As previously mentioned, the role of a mentor is to focus on the development of the mentee, rather than solving their short-term challenges. Simply telling your mentee what to do is not an effective way to help them develop their own approach to tackling personal challenges. In fact, this encourages an idea of relying on others to solve problems for them which can be detrimental to the development of their career and skills.
Instead, place importance on always talking from experience over giving advice. This means you are giving your mentee real world data rather than an unfounded opinion which is based on your beliefs, or even personal biases.
The mentee will be provided an opportunity to take your experience and consider it in the context of their situation, adapting or rejecting as they see fit. Rachel Huggins, Audeliss’ Head of Race Representation, is a mentor and she adds, “The art of communication and showing your true self to a mentee is both empowering and imperative. Allowing someone to know that you too have walked in their shoes and experienced their vulnerability is a powerful tool that allows individuals to reflect, normalize their feelings and actions, and visualize what they can do for their next steps.”
They’re open and active listeners
Active listening is a developed skill where the listener must fully concentrate in order to understand, respond, and remember what is being said.
Those who wish to be a mentor need to be masters at this technique as when first meeting with a mentee, you’ll not only have an opportunity to learn about them personally but also about the context that will be important to their overall professional and personal development.
You will also gain a lot of insight by picking up on body language, discomfort talking around certain issues, how they choose to communicate, and how they deal with questions or feedback.
They get uncomfortable
When thinking about mentoring, you will probably to be encouraging your mentee to step out of their comfort zone. As a mentor you will guide them and encourage them to get themselves beyond their fear of failure. However, to do this you have to step out of your comfort zone.
As we touched on before, biases stop diverse talent from progressing in their careers, as most mentors create affinities with those they have similar traits. So, when it comes time to choose your mentee, ensure you are finding someone from a different background to you.
There are so many learning opportunities for a mentor and a mentee in their differences rather than similarities. People who are looking for mentors want to hear different viewpoints and experiences, and also gain knowledge from a different industry, job role or country that are usually unavailable to them.
This is a great opportunity to learn from someone different than yourself; you are not giving advice on how to follow in your own footsteps, you are helping them to find the best path for themselves which may start and end in a completely different place from your own path.
They’re intentional with their time
Ensure that you are physically and psychologically available to take on mentoring.
Mentees can invest a lot in the idea of having a great Mentor, and a big obstacle for them can be if the mentor is not able to dedicate the time.
“The way that we behave has ramifications on how people interact and engage.” Rachel explains, “It is important that the mentor creates an environment that is respectful of the emotional and physical time the mentee is dedicating to the process. These can be simple things, stay consistent, be on time, be available in the session.”
Just like any other business meeting, you also need to prepare. It is not enough to just show up and let the mentee pick your brain about whatever is on their mind. Although the mentee should be responsible for setting the agenda, you may need to guide them in that skill and provide direction on what information you think it is pertinent to discuss or bring into the meeting.
When embarking on a journey to give back, ensure that you are in the right stage of your professional life to start mentoring others and that you are active in DEI efforts within your organization; this will signal to diverse talent that you are the right person to be their mentor.
Do this through promoting executive development workshops and seminars that address gender and race-related issues, support in-house networks and associations – including networking groups, help colleagues manage their discomfort with race, and challenge implicit rules, such as those that assume that people who weren’t fast movers early in their careers will never rise to the executive suites.
And finally, it’s important to consider why mentoring matters to you personally. Seeking to understand why you want to give back can a be driver in being more intentional and impactful in your methodology.