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A 5-point plan for becoming the best mentor you can be

The founder of a global STEM mentoring nonprofit says authenticity and transparency are key. Share your own stumbles—and how you overcame them.

A 5-point plan for becoming the best mentor you can be
[Photo: Jacoblund/iStock]
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While I was in high school, I was an ambitious student with a serious vision for my future. The daughter of Vietnamese refugees, I was quickly learning that my parents would not be able to guide me to where I needed to go, whether educationally or financially, to achieve my goals. As my friends’ parents cheered them on at extracurriculars that would help them get into college, I often could not get a ride to mine. I spent my summers working 12-hour shifts at KFC (with a night shift at Hollywood Video) to save for a car to get me where I needed to go, and tuition when the time came. Simply because of the family I was born into, my pathway was littered with roadblocks as I battled between what I needed to achieve my dreams, and what my parents believed to be true–or in many cases, didn’t understand.

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I met my first mentor in high school, before I had a name for what he was. I was dropping out of a business competition that would have required me to travel across the state, because I just couldn’t get my parents to understand why I had to go. With a phone call, he was able to bring them around. For the first time, I realized that there could be guides along my way. If I was willing to do the hard work, they could open doors, increase access and help me navigate the system I’d be a part of.

The series of mentors that I’ve had since–mentors who guided me through college, the start of my career, and my role today as a global technology consultant for a major consulting firm–were so impactful on my life that in 2016, I founded Thriving Elements, a global nonprofit that matches girls in underserved communities with long-term STEM field mentors. Being a mentor is an opportunity to change someone’s life. But in my experience matching dozens of mentor pairs, being mentored myself and mentoring others, I’ve realized that there are a few specific elements that mentors should keep in mind when considering entering into a mentorship.

Be authentic

Mentees are often intimidated by their mentors at first, and just assume the path has always been smooth or only think about the end result–success–rather than the path to get there. But this is where a mentor has the most value. Great mentors share their thought process on the decisions they’ve made along their career paths. Most importantly, they share their failures, and what they learned from them. Transparency and authenticity can help mentees make these difficult decisions as they face them later in their career.

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Listen to understand

There is a slight power imbalance in a mentor and mentee relationship. If you’re mentoring someone, they may feel too intimidated to share some of their challenges or worry that it will make them seem unqualified. This is why it’s important to get to know your mentee on a personal level. Understand what it is they need help with, and what drives them. But also listen to what they are not telling you.

This is also an important moment to remember that mentorship is a two-way street. Be open to learning from your mentee. I recently wrote a book and developed a TEDx talk about mentoring. For both, I asked for feedback from Thriving Elements mentees because often they’d have valuable insights to share.

Encourage and empower

Some of the most powerful advice I’ve ever received from a mentor was, “The worst thing they can tell you is no. What do you have to lose when you try?” As a mentor, your role isn’t to instruct your mentee, it’s to encourage and empower them to achieve their goals. Teach them to think by posing thoughtful open-ended questions.

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It’s likely you’ve seen plenty of failure during your career, and you can’t save your mentee from that. In fact, it should be encouraged. Give them the space to fail. If they’re excited about an idea, provide them with guidance, even if you know it might not work.

Connect them with your network

We’re all increasingly aware of the fact that access and opportunities are not equitable. Coming from a place without family support, both in my finances and in connections that would advance my career, I’ve experienced this personally. I’m also a female in STEM, which creates an additional layer of challenge.

But even in the past decade, mentorship has been crucial to developing my career and catapulting me to where I am now. My mentor listened to what I wanted to do to grow and develop, and my mentor took action, ensuring that my name was in the running and that I had access when these opportunities came up.

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Set expectations

The mentee needs to be in the driver’s seat for your mentoring relationship. For a productive mentorship, we need to help those who help themselves. Mentoring isn’t one-sided. For the relationship to be rewarding to you, find a mentee who’s willing to take advantage of access to your knowledge, experience and time.

This has become doubly difficult during COVID, when video calls often present another barrier to the informal conversations and relationship building that can more naturally lead to a mentoring relationship.

So, open that door. Tell them what you expect of them, and what they can expect from you in return to ensure that they understand what they can ask for. Be transparent and offer to mentor people, because often, they are afraid to ask.

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Janet T. Phan is a global technology consultant and the founder of Thriving Elements, a global nonprofit that connects girls in underserved communities with STEM mentors.