Two women sit across from each other, deep in discussion. At closer glance, you see the older, more experienced of the two rattling off advice gained from her substantial career, while the younger woman leans forward absorbing everything she can.
This is likely the picture that appears in your mind's eye when you imagine what mentorship means. However, you might be surprised to learn that this doesn't represent the true mission of most mentorship programs and participants. These relationships aren't meant to strictly funnel information in one direction, down from a mentor to a protege -- this relationship is a two-way street.
Here, we'll take a closer look at how most professionals could benefit from finding time to give back through sharing their experiences as a mentor.
Why should I find the time?
In today's business climate, a lot of people have been asked to do a lot more than fulfill the role they were originally hired for. Perhaps they've now taken on some additional responsibilities, so they're really stretched thin. Many would ask, "If I'm being pulled in so many directions for my career, why should I give up some of my time to mentorship?"
As professionals, we spend much of our day providing deliverables to our clients and organizations. Rarely do we get the opportunity to reflect on what we've accomplished and how. Involvement in a mentorship program allows time for us to share that experience with someone else in an effort to help them. It adds another track to our professional lives -- something on an individual, personal level, vs. delivering on a program or a project.
For example, many of the tough assignments we work on require long-term investments where success won't be realized for a while. With mentorship, you might invest one evening a month to meet someone on a more personal level than you would through casual networking -- someone with a different set of experiences -- and leave energized. You can get an immediate sense of gratification when you spend some time to help somebody and get positive feedback. Doesn't it sound like a gee-whiz?
Is mentoring right for me?
Mentoring is not for everyone -- you really have to search yourself to see if it's something you're willing to do. We can both think of a handful of people who are wonderfully talented, but they simply aren't inclined to spend the time on mentorship.
Going back to that original picture you had of mentorship, you'll notice that the mentor was almost lecturing to her protege. You can't imagine yourself lecturing to another professional about career advancement? Good. The best mentors are the best listeners in the world. Mentors aren't required to do a ton of talking or teaching, because that is typically not what a protege is looking for.
More important, a mentor's role is about being empathetic and a good listener to help a protege focus. It's not about having the answers; sometimes its just helping somebody find his way through a situation or a problem. Usually, most proteges already have the answers they're seeking but may be overwhelmed at times. It can be very helpful to have someone to talk to about an issue and sort it out.
Mentors can come from all walks of life, as long as they bring a wealth of experiences to the table. It's not necessarily about the level of your position or the importance of your title. Although access to senior-level experience is clearly an aspect of mentoring that proteges could benefit from, having a wealth of experiences to call on and being willing to share what you know is really what proteges want to tap into.
One final consideration is whether you're comfortable with the role of "trusted adviser." The concept of confidentiality is key to a successful mentor-protege relationship.
How will I benefit from this commitment?
The act of listening is where the benefits begin. The enriching part, the part that makes you feel so good, is when you realize how much help you've been able to provide through whatever focus or guidance you were able to offer as your protege worked through his own theories of how to handle something. The feedback -- that reinforcement that you were able to help -- is so enriching and rewarding.
In addition to the immediate gratification of direct feedback from proteges, you never fail to learn something new. That can happen when someone clearly wants to learn more about your experiences but that person has more expertise than you do in another area. You might pick up additional information and ideas. Or in the simple act of retelling experiences you've had in order to help someone with her issue, you get a revelation by looking back on how you approached something. You never fail to learn new things for yourself, about yourself -- information you can use in business.
Most people see networking as the key contributor to learning more about their industry and the career path they would like to take. But it is difficult to build relationships beyond the typically casual contact you experience through informal networking. Building a relationship through mentoring is significant -- it's really getting to know somebody on a different level.
One protege we recently had the chance to work with was a young woman who was working for a Washington-based defense contractor. She was extremely focused on achieving her goals -- taking the next step in her career. We may have had more practical years of experience, but this woman is clearly an asset to the company she's working for and to her customers, because she was very analytical and thoughtful. She later sent us an e-mail, noting all the things she had hoped to get from our conversation, the things that she had gotten and some follow-up questions. This was an energizing experience.
Mentorship is the recognition of the fact that we didn't get here by ourselves, but through the help of others. And so this is an opportunity to reach back and help someone else. And back is an inappropriate word, because mentors become proteges at times. Although you have a wealth of experience to offer, you may be going through a career change that dictates your position as protege. The roles aren't mutually exclusive.
Mentorship clearly provides an opportunity to reach out and help someone else break through and advance her career. By recognizing that there were people along the way in your own professional development who took the time to work with you and help you with some of the challenges you faced, you may realize that this is an opportunity for you to do the same. And when it is really working, it is a two-way street. This is truly the mission of mentorship.
-Mary Ann Wagner is chairman and Marguerete Luter is adviser to Alexandria, Va.-based Women in Technology's Mentor-Protege Program. Women in Technology is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to offering women involved in all levels of the technology industry a wide range of professional development and networking opportunities. Wagner is president and founder of XIO Strategies and Luter is vice president of Global Bid Management at Unisys Corp.