Over the past few decades, women have accomplished incredible things in the professional world. We’re sitting at the table, we’re scaling the proverbial career ladder, and we are making more money. That said, we still have a long way to go.
While we’ve learned how to help ourselves, the true key to closing the gender gap is learning how to help one another. But people are often misguided by the concept of mentors, and even with the best of intentions, the relationships often become one-sided and ineffective.
So how can we address this misstep?
As a seasoned tech veteran with years of experience in the corporate and startup worlds, I’ve been on both sides of the mentor/mentee relationship. And throughout my time in different roles and different jobs, I’ve realized that the best relationships form naturally, and the best advice is often not advice at all, but simple guidance.
Here are a few steps you can take towards a healthy mentor/mentee relationship:
Women with experience in their industry should go out of their way to help aspiring young employees. This is a responsibility we all share–no matter how many years of experience you have–to shape the future of female leaders in our field.
However, in the act of offering help, avoid simply soliciting yourself as the mentor. This kind of relationship needs to arise out of the mutual trust and respect that comes from talking and working together. It is not something built from scratch, or demanded, or assigned without reason.
At the edtech startup I work with, StudyBlue, I’ve seen that people learn best when they connect with those going through a similar learning experience. The same theory is true in mentoring: the strongest mentor/mentee relationships occur when two people naturally align.
Perhaps you work on a project together, or attended the same college, or enjoy hiking outside of work. Whether your younger counterpart is a familiar coworker, a brand new employee, or a student, it’s important to have something that brings you together and fosters a comfortable environment where insecurities can be shared, ideas can flow without judgment, and “stupid” questions can be asked.
When I was at Microsoft, one of my younger colleagues came into my office, closed my door, and asked for advice. I replied, “Tell me about yourself.”
The best mentors don’t give answers; they ask questions.
Each person needs to figure out the final decision for herself. I learned this from my mother–she never told me what to do, she talked through the issue with me until I came to a decision myself. Your job as a mentor is to guide someone else in mapping their own course, not to plot their path for them.
Of course, use the insights you’ve gained throughout your career to ask the right questions, to provide constructive feedback, and to present the pros and cons of an opportunity. But if you continuously provide answers to a mentee’s questions based on your own experience, you fail to truly focus on discovering the best decision for the other person.
Ask questions that will provide color on what the mentee truly wants: “What feels right in your gut?” “What do you want to learn?” “How are you contributing in X situation or Y situation?”
The last key to fostering stronger, more natural relationships and more confident mentees is to recognize the mutual benefit of mentorship. Providing guidance to others will also provide you, the mentor, with a stronger sense of self and a better understanding of the many different personalities, priorities, and skill sets of the women around you.
As your relationship with a mentee grows and you guide her through lessons learned and challenges overcome, you will be armed with new opinions and viewpoints to consider in your own decision-making processes for the rest of your career.
—Becky Splitt is the CEO of StudyBlue.