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The 3 Stages Of Mentorship

What is a mentor, and how does one find this sought-after relationship? Two mentors–once mentees themselves–share their advice.

The 3 Stages Of Mentorship
[Image: Flickr user Peter Alfred Hess]

Earlier this week, we chatted about the importance of mentorship for women with Tammy Tibbetts, founder and president of She’s The First, and Caroline Ghosn, founder and CEO of Levo League.

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Both Ghosn and Tibbetts started organizations for women who may feel that the the odds are stacked against them, whether first-generation graduates in developing nations or young professionals in need of solid mentorship. Both women are themselves first-generation college graduates–and both attribute success to their own mentors. “When people ask me what the best advice I’ve ever gotten was, I tell them what my first boss told me: Don’t let perfection get in the way of better,” Tibbetts says.

“As a first generation college graduate entering the workforce for the first time, there were many unwritten rules I felt like I didn’t know, and I wasn’t sure who to ask,” Ghosn says. “Let’s be stronger together and learn from each other and shift our approach to one of women helping women.”

Here, their thoughts outline the process of finding, keeping, and even letting go of a mentor relationship.

1. Finding A Mentor

A mentor doesn’t materialize in a young woman’s life like a fairy godmother. Sometimes it takes getting over nerves to approach someone they admire to ask for mentorship. “I was definitely intimidated before connecting with some of the mentors I am fortunate to have in my life because they have accomplished such an immense amount and I wasn’t sure what value I could bring to the table,” Ghosn recalls.

(Programs like Levo League make it easier to find a mentor or mentee. Check out Ghosn and Tibbetts’ profiles.)

Before seeking a mentor–or becoming one yourself–it’s helpful to define what the title means:

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What is a mentor?

“A mentor is someone who takes the time or social capital to help you along your journey, based on what they have learned,” says Ghosn. They put their protégé first, and help speed the learning curve along faster than they could on their own.

What isn’t a mentor?

Your boss is not your mentor. “They at some point will have to put you ahead of their company and themselves,” Ghosn says. “That is very difficult to do.”

“Remember, true mentors are people you select,” says Tibbetts. Find someone outside of the company you can relate to. “In my experience, those are the best mentors because you can be fully candid with them.”

Know the difference between a mentor and a sponsor. Sponsors “go to bat for you,” says Tibbetts, putting their reputation on the line to be vocal about your success to their colleagues. “Rather than just edit my mentee’s cover letter, for example, if I’m her sponsor, I will call up the hiring person if I know them and say, you have to hire this woman.”

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2. Keeping a Mentorship Thriving

For Tibbetts, mentors are a sounding board, but not a punching bag for problems. “It’s so important to follow-up with them on the outcomes of their advice,” she says. “That’s what keeps them invested in you.”

How much investment the relationship involves is up to the pair. Some mentors check in once a week or once a month; others only get involved to field questions and provide support when needed. Everyone’s relationship is different. “What matters is that a mentor gives you advice that’s best for you,” Ghosn says.

The Millennial-generation gets a bad rap these days; they may just be getting started, but they have their own value to offer.

“Given [Millennials’] innate knowledge of how to use social media, there are a lot of seasoned professional women who want to mentor us, so we can reverse mentor them (like on how to use Twitter!),” says Tibbetts. “The mentorship relationship becomes more of a win-win for both when you look at it this way.”

3. When Good Mentorships Go Bad

Unfortunately, not all mentorships end in a lifelong confidant–and not all good-intentioned mentors can do it all.

How does mentoring fit into an already busy life? Sometimes would-be mentors have to say no–or not right now. “If someone asks you, ‘Will you be my mentor?’ you might say something like, ‘I would love to support you. I have limited time to commit but if you email me specific questions I will do my best to help you or connect you with someone who can,’” Tibbetts suggests.

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The questions of “will you or won’t you” ideally won’t come up at all, she says. “I find the best mentorship relationships are the ones that don’t have you questioning if you have the time and the mentee doesn’t even have to ask to make it official–it just organically happens. The mentor wants to do it so much that you make the time.”

Ghosn agrees: “The best way to start a mentorship relationship is to build rapport by exchanging questions and insight.”

What if the mentee realizes the relationships won’t work out? Cut your losses, says Ghosn. Gracefully bowing out of a mentorship is OK, when it stops being beneficial to both parties.

But when it’s a good collaboration, be grateful. Sending a handwritten thank-you note, an invitation to an event she helped you reach, or a token of appreciation might seem small in comparison to what she’s done for you, but can brighten a mentor’s day, says Tibbetts.

“Demonstrate impact. And gratitude,” Ghosn says. “There is nothing more satisfying to a mentor than knowing they changed the course of your career for the better.”

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About the author

Freelance tech, science and culture writer. Find Sam on the Internet: @samleecole.

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